Smith County, Texas
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Dr. Sam Overton was a reputable and successful physician, by any measure. In his day and time, rural doctors were seldom full time physicians, for the annual receipts from such practice seldom was enough to raise the large families of the nineteenth century.
"Neither the fixed salaries of public service nor the negotiable fees of private practice provided sufficient monetary remuneration. Even the most dedicated doctors were often forced to engage in other businesses to make a living. 'Doctoring,' for the most part, did not put enough bread on the table." 1.
Dr. Sam's other livelihood outside medicine depended on the land. He was a farmer, working some 200 acres on the outskirts of Omen. He surely raised cattle and/or kept milk cows and other livestock, as evidenced by the substantial amount of fodder he took in trade for his medical services.
Part of the doctor's education must have gone toward "Accounting 101," for Dr. Overton kept meticulous records of all his visits, likely beginning with the very first call he made in Old Canton, Texas around 1850. The house calls he made on horseback and in a buggy, as well as the office visits he received, along with every payment made by a patient were duly recorded in leather-bound ledgers, with each ledger containing approximately 240 pages and perhaps 400 different families. Each ledger typically covered four or five years. (Click here for an example of a page extracted from one of the medical ledgers.)
(Photo from collection of author)
|This writer's grandfather, William Thomas Childress, born 1874, was the grandson of Dr. Samuel Overton. Dr. Sam's daughter, Mary Elizabeth Overton, died giving birth to William's younger sister Mary in 1879. The doctor's son-in-law, Caleb Childress, died in the mid-1880's, leaving both William and sister Mary orphans, to be formally put under the guardianship of Dr. Overton in 1893. After the death of Mrs. Samuel Overton in 1920, the, Dr. Overton's medical ledgers fell into the hands of his granddaughter, Mary Eliza Childress, born 1880, who never married and who lived with Dr. Overton's wife Sarah until her death. Mary Eliza died in 1940 and passed the books to her older brother, William Thomas Childress.||
(Photo from collection of author)
Three medical ledgers (A,B and C) were kept in a proper environment and have survived largely intact for well over one hundred years in the possession of Will Childress' direct descendants. Three other ledgers (D,E and F) were found in a burlap sack covered with east Texas dirt and grime in a chicken house on the old Childress farm in the mid-1960's. These ledgers were turned over to the Smith County Historical Society Archives and have been stored there in a metal box for several decades.
The years covered by each of the ledgers, as well as the condition of each ledger, is discussed below:
Ledger A - Covering the years 1888 through 1893, this ledger is complete in virtually every detail. Each and every word has been transcribed, with no abbreviations, to give a completely accurate portrayal of the doctor's work. There were 4,383 entries transcribed from this ledger.
Ledger B - The years 1869 through 1872 are covered in this complete ledger. While minor abbreviations were used for some of the repetitive entries, all 3,265 entries were transcribed.
Ledger C - This ledger covering the years 1894 through 1897 is in virtually perfect shape. Since this was Dr. Overton's last ledger, it is quite valuable in giving an insight into the account collection problems his widow Sarah faced. This ledger had 1,968 entries, all transcribed.
Ledger D - The years 1866 through 1867 are covered in this ledger. Unfortunately, approximately 15% of the books pages are missing; as a result, not all entries were transcribed, although total charges and total receipts were calculated for each patient, as well as transcriptions made for any entry that was non-routine, or entries that contained the name of a patient. A total of 917 entries were transcribed.
Ledger E - The years 1883 through 1887 are covered in this ledger. Once again, many pages were missing, and the same approach was used with this ledger as with Ledger D. A total of 1,549 entries were transcribed.
Ledger F - This ledger, covering the years 1878 through 1882, is in extremely poor condition. Significant portions are missing and the remaining entries were difficult to read. Consequently, only highly unusual events or births were transcribed. None of the 468 entries transcribed from Ledger F are used in the calculation of the following charts and tables, except those associated with births.
A grand total of 12,550 entries were transcribed from Dr. Overton's ledgers, and were simultaneously entered into a database file, thus allowing for various data sorting and query retrievals. An alphabetical listing of all 1,588 unique surnames appearing in all six ledgers noted above is available for the reader's review.
1. Sylvia Van Voast Ferris and Eleanor Sellers Hoppe, Scalpels and Sabers, Nineteenth Century Medicine in Texas (Eakin Press, Austin, Texas), p. 51.
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