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Dr. Cowles of Woodhull

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

It's very likely that there are still a few people alive in Woodhull, Illinois, because of old Doc Cowles, and his ability to advertise.

Young Doctor Cowles stepped off the C. B. & Q train at the Woodhull station in 1910, to begin his career as a doctor. He moved into a large frame house and set up offices in two of the rooms. Here was all his medical equipment, arranged on the walls and in cabinets to impress patients with his skills. Here was a balance beam scale to weigh medical powders and tonics for gallstones, croup, stomach complaints, and cholera. Hanging on the wall were his tools: a shiny bone saw for amputation and forceps to pull teeth, and his framed diploma from Rush Medical College in Chicago.

When Doctor Cowles arrived in Woodhull, Doctor Lowery already had a flourishing practice there. Since it was unethical for doctors to advertise, and since the young doctor had no previous experience which he could advertise, how was he to get patients?

Dr. Cowles had an idea. One a day or so, he would hitch his team up and ride madly through Woodhull out a mile or so into the country. Each day he took a different route. Soon, people were whispering about how busy the new doctor was; he must be able to cure people. Eventually, people got into the habit of leaving a chair in their driveways if they wanted the doctor to call, another bit of subtle advertising.

As with all medical doctors early in this century, most of the prescriptions were more for advertising than for help. Typhoid was treated with hot milk toast, well scorched, with salt and pepper added. Pneumonia was treated with mustard plasters.

Dr. Cowles advertising may not have been standard medical practice, but it did let him use the most old-fashioned treatment of all: time and compassion. Those still living are not alive because of the scorched toast, but because Dr. Cowles patiently sat at their bedside when they had pneumonia, waiting for the crisis to pass, waiting for the baby to be born.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.