Dr. Ben Washburn
Tales of A Prodigal Son
From The Charlotte Observer
Thursday, December 2, 1976
By Pat Borden
Observer Staff Writer
FOREST CITY — Fair Haven Rest Home sits hidden in a high wooded area, overlooking the main road through here. Dried leaves skitter across the empty concrete patio on a cold, sunlit afternoon. The residents, some in wheelchairs, are inside this day. Keeping warm.
Among them is a celebrity of sorts, Dr. Ben Washburn, a son of the South Mountains come home again.
Brought up on the family’s 2,000-acre Cleghorn plantation, he spent his turn-of-the century youth in Rutherford County. When he reached the threshold of higher education, a Baptist minister pleaded with him to go to Wake Forest. “He was afraid if I went to the University (of North Carolina),” recalled Washburn, now almost 92, “that I’d become an infidel.
“He was about right.”
Washburn ignored the minister’s advice and
went to Chapel Hill
. He went on to medical school at the University of Virginia and returned to his own South Mountains to begin his practice in 1913. After 14 months—long enough to collect material for one of his 10 books—he and his Michigan-born wife, Zillah, a nurse, packed their satchels and began their travels. They went to Cuba, the West Indies, South America, Central America and England, sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation to set up public health
“I think the best time we had,” Washburn mused, “was the time we lived in London, 1929 to 1930. The worst was Havana—I haven’t gotten over it yet.”
It was in Havana in the mid-30s, however, that he contributed to the research on sickle cell anemia. “The first case I saw was in Cuba,” he recalled. “They had terrible sores, especially on their shins. I didn’t know what it was.” He wrote up his cases for the American Medical Association Journal, a small sample of the writing he would do over the years.
The Washburns moved back to the South Mountains 14 years ago. Zillah, his wife and medical partner, died nine years ago and Doc Washburn was left to face his latter years alone.
After eight months in a different rest home, he moved into Fair Haven last January and hung Zillah’s picture, a soft-lit profile, by the window in his room.
He accepts compliments on Zillah’s beauty as its proper due.
“My mother,” he remarked, “was very disappointed I was marrying a Yankee. Of course, in that time, people didn’t think much of Yankees, so marrying one wasn’t so good. My family didn’t like it at all.”
Unless you nudge him, Doc Washburn isn’t greatly inclined to dip into the past. Much of his own life and observations is between book covers. One of his books details his early medical experiences as “A Country Doctor In The South Mountains,” and the other one is more autobiographical, “To Every Thing A Season.” Both are in paperback, published by the Spindale Press.
The others, he said, are medical reports written over the years for the Rockefeller Foundation.
“I began writing when I was a little boy,” he said, “long years ago. I’m working on a manuscript now. I’d show it to you, but Mrs. McKeithan put all my work materials up so it would look neat in here.”
(A tentative search was ‘made of his closet, but Fair Haven’s owner, Iris McKeithan, had stacked Washburn’s papers on a TV tray in an intimidating pile too carefully balanced to disturb.)
The anecdotes recorded in his books illustrate life in Rutherford County in the days when the railroad was new, a novelty to people accustomed to getting around by horse and mule. One man, aboard for a short joy ride, was overlooked when the train stopped in Forest City and rode the 50-mile distance to Lincolnton.
“It took the old man a week to walk back home,” Washburn wrote, “but it was the great adventure of his life. For years he told exciting stories of what he had seen and done on the trip, and he always ended each tale with the remark, ‘If the world is as big in every direction as she is down toward Lincoln, she’s a whopper!’”
“Not only was there lack of cleanliness at confinements, but there abounded superstitious practices which were harmful to both mother and baby.”In “A Country Doctor In The South Mountains,” Washburn gives the local descriptions of common ailments. “Digestive upsets in babies,” he observed, “were said to be due to ‘growing down of the liver,’ whatever that may have been.
“Skin eruptions of all kinds, especially when attended with fever and fretfulness, were ascribed to the `hives,’ a condition carefully watched for fear it might turn into the ‘bold hives.’
“… As well can be imagined, fatal cases of scarlet fever and other childhood infections were often ascribed to `bold hives.’ The old remedy for the condition was to, scarify the baby over the left shoulder blade, collect a drop of blood in a silver spoon and give it to the child by mouth.”
A complaint of many children and adults, he learned, was “dew p’izen,” characterized by slow-healing sores on feet and legs, often on hands and arms. Later, he realized this was the primary stage of hookworm disease, associated with the stunted, anemic condition of the mountain children.
Common diets of soggy corn pone with greasy vegetables and lots of salt pork engendered dyspepsia in almost all the adults and children.
Before he left, Washburn had improved obstetrical care, crude at that time because the mountain midwives had no training and relied heavily on folklore for their procedures. “Not only was there lack of cleanliness at confinements,” he wrote, “but there abounded superstitious practices which were harmful to both mother and baby.”
Among the practices he discouraged were feeding the baby “potlicker,” the water vegetables are boiled in, for the first four days of its life, and also the practice of rubbing whiskey on the baby’s head before the cord was cut.
Visitors to Fair Haven may well find Doc Washburn in the foyer, his white head bent over a book or magazine, while he reads with a magnifying glass. There is considerable traffic in to see him, primarily the admiring children and grandchildren of former patients.
“I’ve gone blind and deaf, too, since I had diabetes,” he said, as he escorted two new admirers to his room down the hall. He has lost some vision, hearing and ability to get around without a wheelchair, but, his sense of humor is thriving.
“Don’t know if you know Bingo,” he said, detailing the week’s schedule at the rest home. He shook his head, adding, “I think it’s a stupid game.”
Otherwise, Washburn generally approves of the week’s agenda. He enjoys Monday’s arts and crafts sessions, marveling at “all the things you can make out of just old bottles.”
He takes pleasure in showing off the art objects, displayed in the hope visitors will spend 75 cents or a dollar on a blue molded owl candle or bottle covered with small elbows of dried macaroni. Although he’d never heard of the Church of God before coming back to Rutherford County, he appreciated a recent visit by a Church of God’s children’s choir. “Well, they’re good,” he allowed. “But all they sing is church music.” On the more intellectual side are the educational films supplied on Tuesdays by nearby Isothermal College.
On the previous Thursday, Fair Haven was visited by a choral group from a church in Corinth. “They call it Ko-renth, here,” Washburn noticed, relishing long forgotten regional pronunciations.
Benjamin Earle Washburn enjoys the present. For one thing, he likes to tell visitors about one of his favorite nurses, “Becky,” who came to Rutherford from Kentucky and joined the military when the war broke out. “Watch her walk,” he urged. “She takes quick little steps, just like a soldier. And she can handle people here like nothing you ever saw. There’s one woman who just moans and mutters all day long, ’till Becky tells her to hush. Then you don’t hear another peep out of her.”
Becky, whose real name is Anna Beck, also is known to burst into song when the notion strikes, Washburn added. “Y’oughta hear her sing, `Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.’”
Washburn’s appreciation for people like Becky is partially due to lessons learned during his years of travel. He enjoys telling about the time the family, including their daughter, also named Zillah, took a 14-day trip by steamer from Jamaica, bound for London.
“We met a Scotsman on the boat,” Washburn said, “who invited us to come visit him in Aberdeen. But he looked very seedy, you know, and we didn’t go.”
But the friendly Scotsman persevered, and after awhile, managed to find his friends in London. More or less embarrassed into it, the Washburns accepted an invitation to his home.
“Turned out he was the richest man in Aberdeen,” Washburn chuckled. “And his son was the mayor.” He leaned back in his wheelchair, his hands folded across his lap, and allowed the memory to wash over him.
“So,” he said, and you felt all 92 years of living went into his smile, “I’m glad, we didn’t stay in the South Mountains.”
But now, as the glow of autumn fades around him, Ben Washburn seems content to be home again.
Reprinted with permission from The Charlotte Observer. Copyright owned by The Charlotte Observer.