Sunday Favorites: The Doctors of Palmetto Part 3

Dr. John Oliver Brown on his horse circa 1900. Photo: Manatee County Historic Archives
Dr. John Oliver Brown on his horse circa 1900. Photo: Manatee County Historic Archives
Merab Favorite
We're back again with more information about Palmetto's resident doctors. This week we'll look at another illness plaguing local children. This mysterious ailment was causing the children in the area to become lethargic, anemic, and have little to no appetite.
Dr. John Oliver Brown came to the area in 1893 and served one of the most beloved doctors for many decades. He traveled to Palmetto in his early 20s after graduating from Kentucky Medical School.
Originally from Alabama, Brown dreamed of moving to Sarasota. He moved there six years later and began a drug store at Five Points (present-day downtown Sarasota) in 1900 -- a first in the town. He was also a civic leader when the Sarasota City charter was developed, according to Ruth E. Able in her book 100 Year in Palmetto.
However, Brown moved back to Palmetto because the need was so great. Donning a western-style hat, he made house calls on horseback as two deadly illnesses -- malaria and typhoid fever, infected the town.
Both have similar symptoms, but malaria takes over the body more quickly. Its flu like symptoms can lead to anemia, jaundice and kidney failure. On the contrary, with typhoid fever, signs and symptoms are likely to develop gradually -- often appearing one to three weeks after exposure to the disease.
In children, he found that many were ill with hookworm, a parasite that often enters the skin when children don't wear shoes. It can often lead to death as it depletes their immune system, and they can't fight off illnesses they normally would.
Hookworm infection begins with a prickly tingling in the area between the toes, which was soon followed by a dry cough. Weeks later, victims succumbed to an insatiable exhaustion and an impenetrable haziness of the mind. Victims developed grossly distended bellies and emaciated shoulder blades accentuated by hunching that many believed resembled angel wings. However, the most tale-tell sign of the disease were sunken sockets and a fish-eye stare, according to an article How A Worm Gave the South a Bad Name, by Rachel Neur.
The culprit for these sicknesses was stagnant water and bad sanitation practices. Major campaigns led by the famous Rockefeller family were educating the masses about proper sanitation as hookworm became a major issue in the rural South following the Civil War. Farm animals, heavy rain and poor bathroom facilities for humans all led to the increase in cases. Rockefeller Sanitary Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm Disease began setting up tents on Sunday's in rural communities where people could get tested. Those who tested positive were sent home with Epsom salt and thymol and strict instructions for how to take them. If combined with alcohol or taken all at once, the medications could be lethal.
To address the many cases of malaria and typhoid fever, Brown became determined to fill in surface wells in the area, which were commonly used in pioneer households, but could be replaced with artesian wells. Surface wells were 1,000-gallon cisterns covered with a board that could be pulled aside and accessed during the dry season. When iron screen became available, a six-inch strip encircling the top to keep the mosquitos out. Sometimes, they were made of cypress planks and held together with a large iron.
Brown saw them as disease traps and advocated for residents to fill them in and utilize deep wells instead.
In 1900, a study was published in Italy that mosquitos were behind malaria, up until that time, countries had suffered greatly from these diseases never really knowing what caused them. It took years, but Brown convinced county leaders to begin outfitting all houses with screened windows and doors. In addition, he discouraged people from catching rainwater in molasses barrels and drinking it, as was common at the time.
After 57 years of practicing medicine, Brown retired from his practice. A large party was held at Palmetto Tourist Club Auditorium and 750 people attended. During the event, Brown gave a speech discussing his career. He remembered when a visit was 50 cents, the delivery of an infant cost $10 and medical school was $250.