, Derry, New Hampshire

February 13, 2014

Column: Thankfully, doctors' instruments have improved over the years

Rick Holmes
Derry News

---- — When Carol and I were young marrieds, we looked for a house near to schools; now five decades later, we probable should find one near to doctors. With every passing year we spend more and more quality time with Drs. Brooks, Banister, Stagnone and Wood. I see then so often I now usually call them Ted, Charlie, Mark and Sarah. I know they’re all excellent medicos but when I was a boy Dr. Moore of Hampstead would make house calls. But I suppose now doctors have too much diagnostic equipment to conveniently fit into a physician’s black bag.

Such ruminating led me to check in my files to find when “modern” medical equipment first came into our town. In 1846, the modern use of ether as an anesthetic was first demonstrated in Boston by Dr. William Morton. Before that time, amputations were performed by getting the patient drunk on alcohol or stoned on opiates. The earliest use of an anesthetic in Derry seems to have been in 1885 when Dr. Henry Newell set up the “necessary apparatus” to administrate nitrous oxide -- laughing gas -- for minor surgery.

Dr. Alexander Wark, whose office was at the Odd Fellows Building, which is the site of today’s Cumberland Farm store, was the first local dentist to use modern-style anesthesia. Before this they used cocaine for painful procedures. In March 1905, he was advertising painless extraction of teeth by the use of an inhalant called “Airform.” This wonder-stuff, unlike ether, didn’t knock out the patent but just rendered him “insensible to pain.” That month thanks to Airform, Doc Wark removed 29 teeth in a single day without a single complaint. This was likely an early version of the Novocain that would be used by America’s dentists from 1905 through the 1980s.

Also in March 1905, a rival dentist, Dr. Wallace Nichols, announced that he, too, was modernizing his Derry dental office. He was perhaps the first local to install electrical equipment for “cleaning and burnishing teeth.” He was also likely our first dentist to use electrical power and get rid of the foot-powered drills when working on cavities.

For those who wanted to avoid the dentist’s office, there was an alternative. In 1901, there was advertised in the Derry News a home dentistry kit. For only $1, Dr. Fred Knell, the painless dentist of Lawrence, Mass., would send you a do-it-your-self dental kit complete with instruction booklet and enough amalgam to fill 50 teeth. Why pay dentists $1 a tooth when you could be your own dentist in the comfort and privacy of your own living room? I can well imagine my grandkids’ reaction if I had told them to open their mouths wide because Pepere is their new dentist.

One piece of “modern” medical of which I am rather unsure of its benefits was purchased by Dr. George Beckley of Derry. In April 1907, he bought a Sheldon Vibrator for use in his examining room. This electrical device, he claimed, was used all over America with wonderful success by countless physicians and hospitals. Among the conditions the vibrator machine could cure were “constipation, appendicitis, female troubles, old cases of nervous prostration and mild cases of insanity.” Dr. Matthew Beckley, who has an office in Derry, is the great-grandson of Dr. George Beckley. I wonder if Matt has ever used a Sheldon Vibrator machine in his practice? Probably not.

A method to produce X-rays was invented in 1895 by Dr. Wilhelm Roentgen of Germany. The first known use of radiology on a local occurred in August 1896. At the time, the only X-ray machine in the state was in a private doctor’s office in Manchester. Frank Boyle, a local baseball player, injured his pitching arm and now couldn’t bend it. In the Queen City, the fluoroscope found the arm “full of adhesions” and cured it by “forcibly extending” the joint. The first X-ray machine in Derry was installed in 1935 at the Alexander Eastman Hospital of East Derry; it cost $4,500. Its first patient was Mrs. Gertrude Spollett of Chester, who had a fractured hip.

In 1964, the Eastman hospital moved to Birch Street in western Derry and in 1983 it became the Parkland Hospital. At this modern hospital you can get a CT scan, MRI, mammogram, echocardiogram or a dozen or so other types of radiological procedures that weren’t even dreamed of at the old Alexander Eastman Hospital in 1935 ... but I’ll bet they cost a whole bunch more than $4,500.

Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry. His office hours at the Municipal Center are Mondays from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.