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The Physician As Guardian of the Public Health
and His Contributions to Charity

by John N. Phifer, M.D.
submitted by prewarpro@aol.com

This was Dr. Phifer's presidential address given before the Effingham County Medical Society in 1900.  The public was invited.  This speech was published in the Illinois Medical Journal in June 1973.

 Ladies and gentlemen, we have invited you to be present tonight, that we might on this our annual meeting, bring before the public some questions which we consider of general interest.  We think that the public should know something of our hopes, our aspirations, our successes, and our failures, something of what our profession has done in the past toward safeguarding the general health, and what is now being done; as the success of our efforts depends in a great measure upon the cooperation that we may receive from you.

The position held by the physician is to a certain extent semi-official in that many problems concerning public health are left to his decision and his training and experience peculiarly fit him for this work. Of his position as a medical advisor in your family you are all familiar.  You know that where damper threatens, when life's thread seems near to breaking, when hope weakens, how you search the countenance of you physician for encouragement, how you hand upon his every word for tidings to drive away your fears.  You all know how pleased he is when he can assure you that the danger is past; the patient will recover.   How many thousand times all of this is enacted and how naturally the physician comes to be looked upon as almost a guardian, a protector of the family.  And how fortunate is that physician who may be thus held in the affections of his clientele, and to feel that his efforts are so well appreciated.  Well may he strive to render himself more worthy of their confidence and esteem.

The physician is with you from the cradle to the grave, for disease and death are parts of the plan of creation.  We have to deal with both, and to combat them; to prevent and lessen one, and prevent the other if possible, to stay the hand that hurls the dart that strikes but once.

 We consider it a large part of our mission to prevent disease, to study the existing cause, to learn something of the life history of the germ or infection which may be responsible for the disease.  Today this branch of medicine is called preventive medicine and it is of the greatest importance to the public in regard to general health.

 We feel justified in saying that there has scarcely been a time since medicine became recognized as a science, which does not bear witness to the self-sacrifice and devotion of our profession in behalf of humanity: "In war, famine, and pestilence our brethren have always been found" among those who suffered "sharing their dangers and hardships."

 Long before, what we know now as "preventive medicine" was systematically taught medical men in the dim light.  They were then possessed endeavoring to find and remove the cause of disease.  We will not review their efforts or results but confine our remarks to more recent times, though volumes could well be written of the long and patient efforts of many of the world's greatest minds such as Jenner, Hunter, Harvey, Pasteur, Behring, Kock, and many others who with wonderful patience, great skill and a lifetime of study have placed milestones along the march of human progress, and all future generations will ever revere their names and memories.  They and their successors in research, investigation, and experimentation, in preventing diseases, have saved the world's family countless thousands of valuable lives, and millions of wealth.

 Their findings have rendered vast regions of the world fit for human habitation where formerly disease and death held high carnival.  Consider what would be the condition today in any of our large cities without the benefits of sanitary services, the fruit of the brains of these men.  For how long a time would Paris, London, New York or Chicago, with their teeming millions of people exist, without enforcement of the sanitary laws which embody the results of the observations and advice of scientific medical men?

 In a somewhat varied degree the same hold true with our smaller towns and homesteads in the country, and that we do not all perish from some form of disease is certainly not due to our observance of sanitation, but rather to the benefits of fresh air and that we lead an out of door life.  The human family has as deadly enemies many diseases which from their known or suspected cause, are called preventable diseases, and filth, and bad hygienic conditions furnish the culture medium, wherein the germs of these diseases exist and thrive.  Wherever you go you will find the profession earnestly advising and always protecting against bad sanitary conditions, and there is no doubt that were our advice followed, we would be able to eradicate, to a large extent, many such diseases as small pox, cholera, scarlet fever, measles, typhoid fever, yellow fever, consumption, and malaria.

 The study of the various preventable diseases has engaged the time and skill of numbers of the ablest men in the past, and at the present time a vast army of scientific investigators is waging relentless war upon these deadly enemies of our race.  To a large extent, this is a labor of love upon the part of these men, for the good of mankind.  For the uplifting of our noble profession, there are no niches in the hall of fame, but nevertheless their names will be honored and perpetuated as benefactors.

All of this study, investigation, and experimentation in the cause, nature and prevention of disease will avail little, unless our efforts are aided by individual and governmental support.  It is your duty to protect your home from disease and to do this you should demand of your officials that sanitary laws be enforces and you should set the examples by obeying the laws yourselves.  In this way and in this way only, can our labors bear fruit and lessen the number of sick and prevent disease.  Another point which I wish to express is that all of this study in preventive medicine at the bedside and in the laboratory, has been done by quiet unassuming men in the regular profession, who have given and are giving freely to the world the benefits of their labors.  The men who advertise, the men who make periodical visits to your town, and the fellow how drives from house to house in the country upon a "sure cure," have nothing and cannot have anything whatever to do with this work as they are not physicians in sentiment or ethics and should be barred from practice.  There fore it seems a matter of common justice that you should with moral and financial support uphold the regular profession.  Your family physician whose teachings, whose traditions, lead him to hail with joy and gladly give to his profession whatever he may learn or discover that will in any way releive suffering humanity.

 We have made it possible to eradicate small pox by thorough and systematic vaccination.  We have by the use of the serum treatment reduced the old mortality rate in diphtheria 50 to 75%.  And by the use of the immunizing or protecting power of the serum on those exposed to infection to limit the number of cases thus save thousands of children who previously to the introduction of the serum treatment who would have fallen victims to this dreaded disease.  We have banished yellow fever from the North American continent and adjacent islands and the time is coming when by enforcement of our sanitary laws and measures, this disease will no more strike terror to our hearts nor demoralize the commercial interests of half a continent.  We have made substantial advancement in other diseases along the line of preventive measures, and are still studying and investigation to the end that we may in time control them.

And last, but not least, we are engaged in a general crusade against "the great white plague." Consumption.  We now know it to be a communicable disease, an infective, disease.  We now know that a consumptive person is a menace, a danger to those around him, whether in his own house, or on the streets or public conveyance.  Our profession is constantly pleading for care on the part of the consumptive and his attendants that he be so controlled and so control himself, that he may not infect others and thereby spread the diseases.  The study of the germ life history in the various preventable diseases is very dangerous to the student, as many men have fallen victims to these deadly infections.  But others are ever ready to take on the work.

In times of great peril, when deadly epidemics sweep the land, the physician never falters nor deserts his post.  Not that life is not sweet to him, but being inspired by the example of generation of his illustrious predecessors, duty calls and fails not.

 You remember, no doubt, the fearful epidemics of yellow fever a few years ago which devastated the south where thousands perished in New Orleans, Memphis, and other cities, and you remember the pathetic appeal for help.  The local physicians were worn out, sick, or dead, and the sick were without medical attendance.  When this word went abroad, physicians volunteered.  They went from the north, east, and west to aid suffering humanity.  No crusader who with sword and shield went forth to free the Holy City was inspired with higher, nobler purpose than were these brave men, many of whom fell victims to their zeal and their bodied rest today "under southern skies," their sad requiem the moaning of the pines.
 So it is in every instance, our profession knows no fear where a human being calls for help.  We brave the summer sun and the winter's storm, as well for the poor as for the rich.  We give our time, our skill, our money, and sometimes life itself in behalf of the poor.  Our contributions I the cause of charity exceeds that of any other class of citizen, with us it is not a fad to give our services to the poor, nor a solace to quiet a disturbing conscience, but it is a part of our every day life work.

 In closing I wish to introduce you to an old and very dear friend, William MacClure, "a doctor of the old school" in the Bonnie Briar Bush.  I hope you will study him, for if you do, you will admire him.  He has many prototypes.  They are to be found in every city, town and village in all this broad land.  They are here tonight.  They have risked their lives often to save yours and are ready and willing to do so again.  They are your our family physicians.  Some of them have grown old and gray in your service.  Their steps are feeble and their forms are bent.  When they have answered their final call, write their epitaphs as was written that of Dr.  MacClure's "Greater love hath no man than this; that he lay down his life for his friends."


Dr. John Newton Phifer, M.D., was born on a small farm near Mansfield, Louisiana in 1848.  He was educated at Stuart's Academy, a private school in Mansfield followed by courses at Tulane.  He attended Washington University  School of Medicine in St Louis and St Louis Medical College.  In 1869 he and his parents, Silas and Harriet Phifer, and other family members to Vandalia, Illinois.  One can see the effect of his childhood in Mansfield on his profession: In local diseases and the epidemic, in losing his beloved brother Thomas, his sister Lizzie in childbirth, his little brother, Leonidas at the age of two.

He began his practice in Moccasin, then having a population of 20.  A year later he moved to Shumway in Effingham County, Illinois, where he was one of the first settlers.  His sons also became doctors.  Dr. Charles Phifer was head of the Illinois State Medical Society in 1943.  Dr. LeRoy Phifer was a dentist.  Dr. Frank Phifer was an urologist.  Dr. Frank's son, Dr. Joe Phifer, had a son, Dr. John Newton Phifer, who is a dentist currently practicing in Chicago.  John Phifer's aspirations for his family have thus continued to the fourth generation.

After a brief stay in Illinois, Silas and Harriet Phifer moved to Texas with their three remaining daughters and granddaughters.  Silas had been with the South in the Civil War as a sergeant and was discharged with injuries.  John's brother, Thomas, was killed in the battle of Antietam at Sharpsburg.  We believe his brother-in-law, Martin Lewis, husband of Rachel,  was also killed in battle.  After thirty years in the South they were no longer comfortable in the North.

John married Sallie Owens, who had been born in Knox County, Ohio where his parents grew up and were married.  The Owens and the Phifers were closely connected in several generations in Knox County and in Effingham County.  Sallie's cousin, Daniel Grant., married John's cousin, Rachel.

John and Sallie left Shumway in 1909.  He practiced medicine in Stewardson until 1915, when he moved to Chicago.  Sallie died in 1921 and John in 1922.

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