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Dayton, Ohio - An Intimate History
Chapter Twenty-Three



JOHN  CHARLES  REEVE, M. D., LL.D.  (1826 – 1920)


During the first twenty years of the new century, called the twentieth, those Dayton citizens who lived on West Third Street below Wilkinson were accustomed to see on their way down town a familiar figure known to many of them as “old Dr. Reeve.” He was to be seen any sunny day, walking up and down the sidewalk of his home on the southwest corner or sitting at the window of his old office, reading. Everybody knew him, and everybody spoke to him – the teachers and the children from the schoolhouse a block south, the postmen from the post office across the street, neighbors and friends. Many stopped to have a moment’s conversation and tell him who they were, for toward the last when he was in his ninety-fifth year the doctor did not always remember his acquaintances. They all seemed proud to know him. The conversation often went something like this: “You don’t remember me doctor but you were our family physician for years. Mother thought the sun rose and set in you. You brought me into the world.” “Indeed” was the reply. “Is that so. I never would have recognized you.”

This joke was repeated as many times as the fact was told to him, for the doctor had brought many babies into the world during his practice, lasting nearly seventy years. Young people liked to talk with him because he talked so interestingly about books; suggested reading matter and loaned them certain volumes. The physicians of the city paid frequent homage to their dean and on his ninetieth birthday gave him a banquet, to which the leading medicos in Ohio were bidden. In his ninety-third year Dr. Reeve wrote two series of articles which were published in “Medical Pickwick”: “Excursions in my Library” and “Recollections and Reminiscences.” His was not always the life of dignified ease in which he spent the last years.

A general practitioner of the old school, he knew all the hardships, all the limitations, all the adventures of early days. He had emigrated in 1852 to what was then the extreme western frontier – Wisconsin. Fresh from the class rooms of the Western Reserve University Medical School, his profession was a mere experiment – all from books. He had a stock of drugs and a new wife; lived in a log house, at first without a door to shelter the bridal pair from the cold blasts of that northern climate. His practice was varied and scattered. He brought babies into the world, his own included; he set broken legs; cared for typhoid fever patients, sat up with croupy children. During a smallpox epidemic (it was before vaccination days) he nursed as well as prescribed for the patient because the rest of the village fled in alarm; helped nail up the coffin and read the burial service in the cemetery lot. Whether it was on account of the smallpox or the Indians (of which there were plenty), the cold winters or a sick wife, the struggle was given up and he moved to Dayton arriving in the fall of 1854.

Dr. Reeve was fond of recounting the changes he had seen in his lifetime. Three times, he used to say, had the practice of medicine been completely revolutionized; once by vaccination, once by anaesthetics and once by antiseptics. Always was he in the forefront to meet and welcome improvements. Before the days of vaccination pock-marked people were seen on all sides; ten out of every hundred were blind from that horrible scourge. Chloroform had yet to be discovered, so legs had to be amputated and tumors removed from wretched patients who could look on and feel everything – almost as hard on the operator as the sufferer. Antiseptics had not been thought of, so every wound ran into gangrene horrors, and hundreds died that now would live.

Dr. Reeve himself helped on the good work when he translated from a French magazine an article on the clinical thermometer and thus helped to bring to the attention of the profession in America what is now an everyday necessary tool. Active, not only in the practice of his profession, but as a contributor of time and skill to many organizations, he was founder of the American Gynecological Society, a vice-president and member of its honorary council, and an Honorary Fellow; he was president emeritus of the Ohio State Medical Society; organizer and for thirty years chief of staff of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital of Dayton; Honorary Fellow of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

He might truly be called a self-made man, not with the usual acceptation of the term – money self-made, but personality self-made. His every effort was towards education, experience, acquirement, accomplishment. At twelve years of age he had to give up school but his education went right on. He sold papers on the Cleveland streets; tried printing, was an apprentice on the Cleveland “Advertiser” for three years and read every piece he set up; tried clerking in a dry goods store and hated it; studied German by doing chores for an old man in a third-story room; taught a country school, and saved his money toward more education; studied medicine with Dr. John Delamater, one of Cleveland’s best physicians, entered the medical department of the Western Reserve, but only remained two years.

Then came the Wisconsin experience and the conviction that he was  too unprepared to practice medicine. To London he must go and then to Germany to get what he could from the best clinics and hospitals in the world. But he had a young wife. What did that matter when she was as ambitious for his success as he was? To the superintendent of schools in Cleveland she went and demanded to be taken back on the roll of teachers which she had given up to be married. It was hers, and the salary shared with this ambitious husband who took the next sailing ship for London. There, at King’s College Hospital, he had his first opportunity to work on the cadaver, and to pursue what was even then beginning to be his major interest – anaesthesia.

From London Dr. Reeve went to Gottingen and spent the summer of 1854 doing special work in obstetrics under Von Seibold. When homecoming arrived he shipped as surgeon on a sailing vessel which took four weeks for the passage and arrived in Cleveland with just ten cents in his pocket. There to Dayton, into partnership with Dr. Cary; then “on his own”; driving about town and miles into the country in his buggy; then into partnership with Dr. W. J. Conklin; then with his son, Dr. J. Charles Reeve; again alone, and thus ends the story.

It is good to remember that all the tributes to Dr. Reeve did not come as so many do, after he was gone. On his retirement from active practice in 1908 a local daily wrote:


He has seen Dayton grow from a village to a great city; he has served long, that is much; but he has served faithfully, that is more; he has served efficiently, that is the most any man can do; on his retirement he has the love and respect of all the people of the city. What an example! And in this present day of striving after emoluments and professional prestige – what a life to pattern after! Truly Dr. Reeve was a physician. He lived in the hearts of all.


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