I frequently get telephone calls asking me for historical information, such as when something was built or who owned a certain piece of property. Recently, a caller asked me to supply the name of a physician who practiced medicine in Moccasin Springs.
The woman making the inquiry needed it for a school assignment, but making the search difficult was the fact that she only knew his surname, Miller. She did recall that he owned property in the Moccasin Springs area and had even sold a small tract to her father, who built a house on the land. In the 1950s both properties became part of Trail of Tears State Park.
After a bit of a search, I found a 50th wedding anniversary announcement, published in the Missourian in 1965, for the good doctor: Oliver Jerome "O.J." Miller.
That led to a further discovery: The story of Doc Miller's retirement two years later.
Published in the Southeast Missourian Feb. 28, 1967:
Dr. O.J. Miller, who retires today after 61 years of practice, largely in Cape and Perry counties, reads a medical journal in his home, 1972 Bend Road. Behind him is his desk and shelves of drugs, while he leans on the worn leather chair where he has treated thousands of patients. (Southeast Missourian archive)
Retires After 61 Years
DR. MILLER'S LIFE: A MEDICAL ROMANCE.
By JOHN L. BLUE
When you listen to Dr. O.J. Miller you are seized by a personal sense of history, of things long past, yet fresh because he was a participant, and of just how young this nation is.
The doctor's narrative covers most of his 87 years and involves a romance with medicine from his boyhood days to the present.
It takes you from the hills of Cape County out to the Wild and Woolly West, and to a recollection of the terrible march of the Cherokees along the Trail of Tears.
There are many memorable moments along the way, and Dr. Miller recalls them vividly, down to dates and names and places with a memory that is remarkable.
Dr. Miller's medical career now covers 61 years, and today he will close his colorful practice not because of ill health, but because, "I just figured I've done my part. I'm going on 88 years now and that's a good long time. I've ridden everything but an airplane. Now I want to go up to the farm and mess around with the boys and look around. I can't get enough exercise around here."
Here is the home at 1972 Bend Road, where for the past 17 years he has conducted his practice from a room outfitted with chair and cabinets containing his medical supplies. Here, too, he has mixed his own prescriptions and dispensed his own drugs in the tradition of the old country doctor.
He lives here with Mrs. Miller and two bachelor sons, George "Bud" and Edison Miller. A third son, Joseph, lives near the farm Neelys Landing. There are two Miller daughters, Mrs. Leon Gockel, 1968 Bend Road, and Mrs. Joseph Wells of Decatur, Illinois.
The bending of the twig that started Dr. Miller along the road of medicine came when he was a child. He was around 7 or 8 years old, he recalls, when he saw his grandmother apply splints to the broken legs of chickens or the broken wings of geese.
"I would help her," he said, citing this as his first recollection of an interest in mending living things.
But the incident that put him on the road to a medical career came one sunny summer Sunday when he and his best friend, Pete Dickerson, decided they wanted to build a boat to use in Byrd's Creek which ran by his father's farm.
"I was about 12," he said. "Carpenters were building a barn for Father. They had their tools locked up and the tools were the difference between building the boat and not building it. My parents were not at home.
"Pete said he had seen his brother pick a lock and thought he could do it. He did and we opened the tool chest. There was plenty of lumber, and I was sawing a piece of wood when it broke and the saw went between my toes.
"Pete said his father had told him bleeding could be stopped if you took some soot out of a stove and put it on the wound. We took the lids off of Mother's stove and scraped the soot off and applied it, but the wound kept bleeding.
"Boy, was I scared," the doctor recalled.
"I asked Pete to find me a pin cushion. I didn't know what a surgeon's knot was, but I threaded a needle and sewed up the wound.
"Pete asked, 'Does it hurt?'
"'Yes,' I said, 'But I want this bleeding to stop.'"
Dr. Miller said they wrapped a rag around his foot and when his parents came home they took him at once to Dr. G.W. Tarlton at Oak Ridge.
"He took the rag off," Dr. Miller recalls. "Looked at the wound top and bottom and said, 'Pat, you did a good job, but I wish you had used white thread instead of black!'"
That incident, along with his help in the repair of fowl on the farm, stirred the youth's interest in becoming a doctor.
His first schooling had been at the old Goshen School near Oak Ridge, where Dr. Miller was born on Christmas Day, 1879. When his father bought the old Abraham Byrd farm on Byrd's Creek -- the house built in 1824 by slaves -- he went to the Schoenebeck School through the eight grade.
This was followed by attendance at the old Jackson Academy (the family how having moved to Jackson) where he was a classmate of another venerable Cape County physician, Dr. W.W. Ford of Gordonville.
In 1902 he was enrolled in the Old Normal School here and had another brush with medicine.
"We had chapel exercises in those days," Dr. Miller remembered, "and the first day after the Christmas holidays several us were sitting in the front row.
"One of these boys, his name was Schweitzer, felt awfully bad. We looked over at him and he was all broken out. It was smallpox.
'"Old Dr. Rider (James H.) was here then. He had an old bone and a jar of pus. He vaccinated most of the school with this."
Dr. Miller explained that a scratch was made on the arm with the sharp point of the bone, that it was then dipped in the jar, and the infectious material was applied to the fresh scratch to complete the smallpox vaccination.
"There was quite a scare at the school about this," Dr. Miller recalled.
After almost two years at the Old Normal School, Dr. Miller went to Vanderbilt, where he spent a year in medical college -- "If you had a high school diploma you could enter medical school," He added that he had a preceptor while at the Old Normal School, Dr. Benjamin R. Helmstead, who taught him some medicine.
There followed three years at Physicians and Surgeons School in St. Louis, now defunct, but at that time widely recognized with several famous teaching doctors on it staff.
It was in his third and last year there that Oklahoma became a state and he learned that doctors were needed and could take an oral examination and be issued a permit to practice. He and another young doctor decided to go there. The Parke-Davis Drug Co. fitted them out with the necessary medical supplies.
They were examined and he decided to practice at Stuart, where he spent a year as a physician for a pipeline company building a line from Tulsa to Port Arthur, Texas, one of the first in the country.
"I was talking to fellow one day," Dr. Miller said, and he told me I ought to go over to Blackrock for a three-day picnic.
"'You'll see a lot of people and a lot of funny people.'"
The doctor rode his pony through the mountains and sure enough, he found it was quite an affair. The men were heavily armed with sideguns and with rifles in their saddles. It was The Raw West.
But the most memorable -- and amazing -- part of that trip was a chance meeting.
"On the first day," Dr. Miller said, "I saw this old Indian with long hair and one tooth and went over to talk to him. He spoke English well and asked me where I was from.
"I told him Cape Girardeau in Missouri.
"He looked at me and said, 'Oh, I crossed the Mississippi River there when I was a little boy. My father used to tell me it was at a place called Greensferry.'
"He was a Cherokee Indian."
The incident became more amazing when Dr. Miller told the old Indian that the land at the crossing was owned by his father and that the doctor as a boy had spent many happy hours along the same route!
Dr. Miller later owned this land and sold it to the county when Trail of Tears State Park, named for the march, was established.
After his stay in Stuart, Dr. Miller returned to St. Louis and in 1913 came back to Cape County, establishing his practice at Neelys Landing, a thriving community on the Frisco Railroad at that time.
Doctors then, with none of the techniques of equipment available now to aid doctors in their practices, had to be quick witted and able to improvise to meet a given situation.
There were many such occasions for Dr. Miller, but one particularly stands out in his mind while at Neelys Landing.
"A woman came to me one day and wanted me to pull a wisdom tooth that was giving her pain. We did a lot of things then, but it was something I thought should be handled by a dentist and I wouldn't do it.
"She got on the train and went to Cape Girardeau. I saw her when she got off the train on her return and saw she was still spitting blood.
"About 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning her husband came for me and said she was bleeding to death and he couldn't stop it.
"Well, I went out there and she was white and was bleeding to death. I had nothing to stop the flow, so I asked the children who were standing around scared to death if they could find me a tiny bottle cork.
"One did, and I ran a thread through it, painted it with tincture of iron, put it in the hole in her mouth and her bite down on it."
Dr. Miller explained the tincture of iron was a cauterizer and helped seal the wound while the cork kept the blood contained. In case she swallowed the cork and started choking the cork could be pulled free.
The Neelys Landing practice continued for a year. Then Dr. Miller bought out the practice of Dr. D.G. Siebert at Egypt Mills, where he practiced for 30 years.
There he was a doctor for the Frisco in addition to all his other general practice. Doctors were assigned to various stretches of the line and Dr. Miller was given that from Bainbridge to Wittenberg.
"I practiced in Missouri and Illinois. Many is the time I've rowed the river in a skiff and one night I walked across the ice when I was sicker than the patient."
But times change and roads get better and people move and came about that Dr. Miller had to leave the Egypt Mills community and the people he had known so well. This time it was to Perryville, where for 12 years he practiced in a rewarding period of his life.
The incidents pile one on another and Dr. Miller tells them with ease, his memory flooding back over a lifetime of service treating the ill and bringing babies into the world -- well over 1,000 of them -- and the problems of delivery on many.
But of all of these births, with children delivered under primitive and often unbelievable conditions, only one mother succumbed to septicemia, and this, he said was in a house that was immaculate.
Dr. Miller came to Cape Girardeau to live in 1950. His practice since then has been from a room in his residence, a traditional place for the old country doctor. There are kept the pharmaceuticals, the bandages, the case full of instruments, the old worn leather chair, his desk and his typewriter.
He has been invited to become a member of the staffs of Saint Francis and Southeast Missouri hospitals, but has declined to do so, although he used their facilities back years ago. He has been content to treat those who come to him and to take life much easier than in the old days, going to his farm and enjoying the things he wants.
In 1956 the Cape County Medical Society honored him on his 50th year in medicine. He continues his membership in this society, in the Missouri Medical Association and in the American Medical Association.
Schooling never really stops for a doctor, and he has continued to read the journals and try to keep up with developments in the field, but Dr. Miller agrees that this is a most difficult thing to do now.
In his basement is a complete shop containing lathe, table saw, cutoff saw, drill press and other equipment for fashioning both wood and metal. The furnace for casting aluminum has been improvised from a heating system taken from an old country school.
The strength of Dr. Miller's hands and arms belies a man of 88. It is shown by the way he handles the tools and the equipment. This and his farm comprise his hobbies.
Here is one of the last of a vanishing breed, one whose life has touched the lives of those who lived in the nation's beginnings, and who has seen medicine advance from the days of the frontier and the covered wagon to the use of the atom and its awesome portents for the good or ill of mankind.
Dr. Miller died in Cape Girardeau on Dec. 16, 1971, at the age of 91. His obituary agrees in every detail with the information presented in the story of his retirement.
Along with his five children -- George, Joseph, Edison, Louise and Clara -- he was survived by a sister, Norma Corse, and by his third wife, the former Clare J. Bray. Miller married his second wife, Mary E. Miller, the summer of 1908, having divorced his first wife earlier that year. Mary died Dec. 28, 1908. Clare Bray married Miller in 1915, and she died June 5, 1977.