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First Iowa Surgery

This Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

One night deep in the winter of 1833, in Buffalo, Iowa, the door of Captain Benjamin Clark's log cabin opened. Barely visible in the howling storm stood an old friend of the Captain's, John Shook.

Old Shook had walked all the way from his claim along the Wapsipinicon river near what is now Buena Vista in Clinton County to get supplies. Habitations were few in 1833 and Shook had no choice but to go all the way or not go at all. Captain Clark had been the first white man to cross the river to Iowa following the Black Hawk War of 1832. Clark had established a ferry service across the Mississippi and was waiting for the expected hordes of immigrants to make Buffalo the Queen City of the West and himself a rich man.

Old Shook was a close friend of Clark's, a wild woodsman used to tough frontier conditions. He wore his usual outfit against the cold—rawhide boots and several layers of animal skins, but the below-zero weather, the deep snow, and the long trip had brought the woodsman near to collapse. The cold had also frozen the toes solid on one foot. Clark knew that the toes would have to come off to prevent gangrene setting in. "Give me a bottle and a few minutes to prepare," was Old Shoot's response.

"I'm ready," he said shortly. One of Captain Clark's assistants, a man named Smith Mounts, brought a hammer and chisel, ordered Old Shoot to put his foot on the floor. Without a sound, except five sharp "clunks," the surgery went smooth and quick. "You do good work, sonny," Old Shoot said. "Whopped 'em off clean as a whistle."

A few days later, Old Shoot left the Clark cabin loaded with supplies and headed back to the Wapsipinicon.

The first surgery in Iowa had been a success, in spite of the lack of sterile surgical tools and the lack of a doctor—the bottle of anesthesia excepted. It was among the cleanest of Iowa surgeries, too. There were no insurance forms to fill out in triplicate, no HMO, no ambulance bill, and not the slightest hint of a lawsuit for malpractice.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

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.