Articles & Stories

Dr. Robert Elza Gibson: A Much Loved Country Doctor

This is a story my mother, Wilma E. Booher, wrote with my help.
I have always been proud of my grandfather who was a country doctor. Dr. Robert Elza Gibson, 1859-1937, cared for many families in Clinton and Cumberland counties. He traveled to their homes on his favorite saddle horse. When the red clay roads allowed, he drove a one-horse rig, and, eventually, he bought a car, but he never learned to drive it himself. He often paid someone in the community to drive him.

Dr. Robert Elza Gibson, a country doctor in Clinton and Cumberland counties with his wife. Seated in the wagon are half-sisters, Mary Sabina and Vinnie Lela.

Grandpa was the first of nine children born to Ezekiel and Nancy (Lackey) Gibson near the community of Highway in southwestern Clinton County. His first marriage was to Malinda Matilda Barber, with whom he had seven children. My father, Addison Sherman Gibson, was their fifth child. Father recalled with sadness that he was only nine when, in 1897, his mother died of consumption (tuberculosis), as so many others did in those days. With young children to rear, his father married Rose Elizabeth Booher, with whom he had two more children. Grandpa's youngest child, Grace Gibson Mims, born in 1912, currently lives in Versailles and also has many memories of her father and the work he did in the community.
I remember my Grandpa well, as he cared for our family's medical needs until his death in 1937. Sadly, he also outlived his second wife, who I knew as "Grandma Lizzie," and after whom I was given my middle name, Elizabeth.
Grandma Lizzie died in 1925 when I was four. I remember being in her home and asking her if I could have a biscuit. Grandma Lizzie went straight to the kitchen cupboard, opened the door, and gave me one of the morning biscuits she had put away.
"Doc Gibson," as many called him, was truly the "old-time country doctor." He ordered his medicines through the mail and kept them in a room he had built just off the front porch. The door was kept closed by turning a small wooden block nailed to the door frame. The children knew better than to plunder in Grandpa's medicine room. Before going out to see his patients, he would set up his medicines on top of the porch handrail and restock his doctor's bag.

E. Kathleen Booher of Plymouth, Michigan, shares this photo of Dr. Robert Elza Gibson with his six adult children from his first marriage to Malinda Matilda Barber.

Sometimes his patients paid him with money. Family members recall he received about $2 for a house call in later years, but often he was paid with hen eggs or a sack of meal. There were times, of course, when families had nothing at all with which to pay him, but it made no difference in how he cared for them. He just kept a log accounting for his visits and treatments. From time to time, some families would settle their account with a larger payment, such as a hog. One time Grandpa received a yellow mule from a man as payment for his account. Grandpa was very fond of his fine saddle horses and did not have much use for a mule, but he accepted the payment and later gave the mule to my oldest brother who named it "Doc."
Grandma Lizzie was a midwife and worked with Grandpa throughout their marriage. She delivered babies in the community, but she would call for the doctor if she could see there was trouble. In fact, in 1916 Grandma Lizzie delivered a baby boy who, 23 years later, became my husband. In 1921 she and Grandpa delivered me when my birth proved difficult for my dear mother.
Grandpa's license to practice medicine was burned in a house fire, so our family is not certain of all the details of his training. As with most rural doctors, we know that Grandpa apprenticed for quite some time with an older doctor near their community. We also know Grandpa traveled by train, we believe to Louisville, for testing to get his license.
He was a dedicated doctor and never stopped practicing medicine, no matter how ill he became. When Grandpa was old and ill, the families he rode to visit would help him off his horse when he arrived and boost him back on when he left.
In the early 1900s, phone lines were set up to connect groups of homes throughout the area. Grandpa had two separate phone lines run to his home. This way families in a wider area could "ring" him when they needed help rather than send a child running to his house, which was a common way to summon the doctor. Sometimes, if he recognized the symptoms, and the illness did not sound too severe, Grandpa would count out a few pills and put them in a paper envelope for the child to carry back home to the ailing family member.
About 1924, when I was three, Grandpa moved his family to a new house in Highway next door to the general store and across the street from the church he attended. My parents moved our family into Grandpa's old house. Both his phone lines were still hooked up to the house. I remember whenever a storm was brewing one of us would dash outside to unhook the lines so lightning would not run into the house.
Grandpa was a man with many interests and lived his life with high standards. He disapproved highly of tobacco use and never allowed it to be grown on his land. He was a gentleman who believed he should wear a freshly starched collar each day. Grandma Lizzie washed and starched his collars until her death, and then he sent his collars through the mail to a laundry in Somerset.
Grandpa was interested in horticulture. He planted many kinds of flowers, shrubs, and fruit trees around the home-place, even doing grafting experiments with some of his trees. Although his yellow plum orchard died decades ago, the Easter flowers (narcissus) he planted still bloom every spring and continue to spread all over the yard.
Grandpa always called me "Child." I loved him then and still do. I will never know for sure if he really did not know my name, or if he just decided, because I was the youngest in my family, that "Child" was what I should be called. I do know he loved me though. When I would get ready to leave for home, Grand-pa would call me to his side and tie a nickel in the hem of my dress, telling me to keep it there until I got home.
The days of the old country doctor were special days for all of us who can still remember them. These were dedicated men who served their communities at all hours of the day and night, traveling through woods and hollows, and, in fact, exposing themselves to many of the dreaded diseases that claimed so many of our family members in those times. We appreciate all of the old country doctors who laid this groundwork for the doctors of today, but to me there were none more special than my own Dr. Gibson.
Dr. E. Kathleen Booher
44800 Clare Boulevard
Plymouth, MI 48170