Greeley’s Established Doctors Threaten Arrest and Lynching of a Young Doctor Who Advocated a Novel Antitoxin Treatment for Diphtheria
In 1991, the City of Greeley Museums acquired a collection of 336 4×5” glass plate negatives made by Dr. John Augustus Weaver, a Greeley physician and an enthusiastic photographer. In 1995, the Greeley Museums collaborated with Dr. Alan Ackerman and his photography class at Aims Community College to print images from these negatives onto archival paper. Many were made into 16×20” black and white prints and exhibited at the Tointon Gallery at the Union Colony Civic Center. Dr. Weaver’s son, Dr. John A. Weaver, Jr., loaned family albums to the museums so we could learn more about his father. These albums contain priceless memoires and memories recalled by John A. Weaver, Sr. and fortunate for us, museum staff member Peggy Ford Waldo transcribed these albums before returning them to the lender.
John A. Weaver, Sr. was born in 1870 on a farm near North Liberty, Indiana. John’s mother developed tuberculosis in 1881. The family moved to Denver in August, 1882 but soon relocated to a ranch between Longmont and Berthoud where they lived for five years. In his album John said, “there was neither water nor sewage systems at that time. We drank water from the irrigation ditch and knowing nothing about germs, it was never boiled, with the result that I had a very severe attack of typhoid.”
John’s mother’s illness inspired him to become a doctor. His older brother, Charles, followed suit and his sister, Hattie, became a nurse.
John graduated from Longmont High School in 1889 and attended the University of Colorado for two years. Unable to afford the cost of medical school, he first pursued a degree in pharmacy and eventually graduated from the University of Colorado School of Medicine on June 3, 1897. His first job was in Silver Plume, CO, but after a few months he came to Greeley and set up his practice with his brother, Charles, in the Park Place Building at 9th Ave. and 8th St., across from Lincoln Park. Immediately, he received the “cold shoulder” from Greeley’s medical community, and the rest of this story is recounted in Dr. Weaver’s own words, transcribed from his album:
When I came to Greeley to practice in 1897, there were seven doctors. . . all in their forty’s or over. Calling on the profession to become acquainted with the men I hoped to work in harmony with, I was told that a young man of my age, fresh from college, could not get a foothold in competition with more mature men, especially as they were already established. Only one doctor, the oldest of the seven, largely because of my limited finances (I had worked my way through college) would discourage migrating even to the next town.
During my senior year in college, diphtheria antitoxin became obtainable and was just finding a place in the armamentarium of the up-to-date doctor. When I located in Greeley, an epidemic of diphtheria was raging, with a very high mortality rate. I found that none of the antitoxin was being used or had been used by any of the seven older doctors in their treatment of the disease. They were still using the old fashioned, ineffective method of blowing sulphur into the throat through a goose-quill and giving internally the tincture of chloride of iron. If they had dusted the sulphur on the patients’ heads and taken the iron themselves it would probably have been equally effective.
The first family I was called upon to treat was a poor family “across the tracks” in which the mother and six children had the dread disease. Another doctor had been treating them and all were growing worse. I found the throat of the oldest boy who was stricken first, was necrotic, the uvula having entirely sloughed away. I know there was much prejudice to the use of antitoxin so I told the father I would take the case only on condition that I be permitted to use it, to which he agreed. As soon as I could get the remedy from Denver, I gave an injection to the mother and each of the five children who were still conscious. By then the oldest boy was moribund and I told the father it was too late to save him, but he insisted I give the antitoxin to the dying boy, which I did. He died about two hours later. All the rest recovered uneventfully. In all my years of practice, I have never lost another case of diphtheria.
In a few days I began hearing rumors that I was to be arrested for manslaughter because I had injected that “poison” into the child and he had promptly died. I paid little attention to the rumors as I knew the family understood and were grateful for the prompt recovery of the other six. However, the rumors continued and one day I was told that a group of men were discussing the case in front of the post office and were suggesting that the young doctor should be taken out and lynched. For many years Dave Camp was Greeley’s Chief of Police. “Old Dave” could, when occasion demanded (which was frequently) use the most picturesque profanity imaginable. Dave happened to hear what these would-be lynchers were saying. He told them, “If you fellows want to lynch anyone, start on me. Now disperse and if I hear one more word of this talk I’ll run the whole bunch of you in.” This is an English translation of the colorful language he is said to have used.
After this I was not too concerned, although I found that all the older doctors condemned me. Then early one morning, the inevitable happened. Old Dave himself appeared in my office. When I saw his star, I was sure my time had com. He said, “Are you Dr. Weaver?” I told him yes, I was the man he was looking for. He said, “I understand you are using antitoxin in diphtheria cases.” I admitted the allegation and was ready to hold out my hands for the handcuffs when he said, “I want you to go down to my house and give antitoxin to my two children. They are desperately sick.” I said I supposed he had a doctor and he replied, “Yes, but he won’t use antitoxin.” I told him I would be glad to go in consultation with his doctor, but the chief said, “I suggested that but he refuses to consult with you.” So I agreed to go.
When I examined the patients, I found a most unusual condition. The children, a boy and a girl about six and eight years of age, were lying on their backs with their mouths open, breathing with difficulty. Both were in a semi-comatose state, staring wildly at the ceiling. Their throats were so swollen there was only a small triangular space through which to breathe. The membrane had not only covered the tonsils and palate but had filled the vault of the pharynx and had grown out of both nostrils until it protruded a half-inch beyond the nose. I have seen only one other such case in all my years of practice. I feared I was again too late, but doubled my ordinary dose and told the parents I’d be back in the evening. When I returned twelve hours later, I found the nostrils free of membrane, their mouths closed, and they were breathing easily through the nose. I repeated the double dose I had given in the morning. The next day, on examining the children, I called the parents into the sick room to see the results of this marvelous new remedy. The large patches of yellowish-brown membrane that had completely covered the tonsils the day before were now turned up at the edges all around like a chip of fresh bark laid out in the sun to dry. That evening, only 36 hours after their desperate condition, their throats were entirely free and they went on to a rapid recover.
After the prompt recover of a number of these serous cases, the other doctors who were still losing their patients, began to take notice. Three months later, I was requested to give a paper on the use of antitoxin at the medical society. So ended the first chapter of my introduction to the practice of medicine in the City of Greeley.”
Time passes and medicine advances. The antitoxin for diphtheria saved lives as demonstrated by Dr. John Weaver in 1897. The world now anxiously awaits for an effective vaccine(s) against COVID-19, and an end to this pandemic.
Prepared by: Peggy A. Ford Waldo
Nov. 2, 2020