Once Upon a Time

E.B. Montgomery was at one time oldest practicing physician in U.S.

At age 92, Dr. E.B. Montgomery drives a horse and buggy with an unidentified passenger in the Adams County Medical Society Centennial Parade on Oct. 14, 1950. | Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County
By ARLIS DITTMER
Posted: Jan. 5, 2020 12:30 am Updated: Jan. 5, 2020 1:38 am

According to the American Medical Association, Dr. Edmund Brewer (E.B.) Montgomery was the oldest practicing physician in the country when he died Dec. 8, 1954.

His parents, Robert and Elizabeth, were from New Jersey and Ohio but moved west. E.B., the oldest of their three sons, was born in St. Louis in 1858. The family moved to Quincy when E.B. was a small child.

Montgomery first attended the College of Pharmacy in Philadelphia. He transferred to Jefferson Medical College in the same city and graduated in 1878. While in college he attended a session of the International Medical Congress in Philadelphia in 1876 and heard Joseph Lister of Edinburgh, Scotland, and Dr. John T. Hodgen of St. Louis discuss the importance of antiseptic or sterile surgery. At that time, cleanliness and antiseptic surgery were not universally accepted by the medical profession. Montgomery was a convert.

After graduation, Dr. Montgomery returned to Quincy to open his practice. He later attended postgraduate courses at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. As a young doctor, he traveled to Europe and attended International Medical Congresses in Lisbon, Portugal, and in Geneva.

When Dr. Montgomery began his practice, there were no telephones, automobiles, paved streets or street lights. He was summoned to a patient by messenger and traveled through mud and snow by horse and buggy.

He often performed surgery on the patient's kitchen table, helped by the family, with only kerosene light. He credited hospitals, nurses and sanitation with saving countless lives.

He believed in the value of the public improvements of sewers and water works. He championed mortuary registration, the fencing of livestock in the city, and the important work of the Board of Health.

The Quincy Daily Journal interviewed Dr. Montgomery on April 28, 1893. He said, "Sanitation is not a question of force but of education. The people should be educated as to the best way of disposing of garbage, etc."

Unfortunately the suggestion was to burn garbage, now frowned upon, but at that time was preferable to throwing it in the street. In the same article he touted the advantages of a clean city in preventing typhoid and cholera epidemics.

Dr. Montgomery's personal life was less straight forward than his medical career. He married Agnes Coxe at the Unitarian Church on Oct. 12, 1881. The wedding announcement in The Quincy Daily Whig of Oct. 13, 1881, said, "Dr. Montgomery is a young physician whose growing practice bespeaks his skill and ability, and his personal popularity is general. The bride has been a favorite in Quincy society for several years. …" Their marriage produced five children, two of whom died young. The couple separated briefly in 1912, and in 1916, Agnes Montgomery sued for divorce.

In 1917, E.B. married Maud Edith Burrus Webb. She was a teacher who married a farmer, Dwight Webb, in 1902. They divorced in 1911. Dr. Montgomery was 25 years her senior.

Dr. Montgomery's home for most of his life in Quincy was at 1461 Vermont. The home was partially destroyed by fire in 1914, which led to an investigation of the fire call system due to the delay of firefighters reaching the burning house. There were no injuries as no one was home.

After his second marriage and wedding trip to St. Louis, he and his second wife, Edith, lived in an apartment adjoining his office. They later moved back to 1461 Vermont. Edith died in 1938.

Dr. Montgomery built the building to house his office on the southeast corner of Eighth and Hampshire streets in 1892. He continued his practice at that location until he died in 1954.

According to the Dec. 8, 1954, edition of The Quincy Herald Whig, his favorite saying, quoted often, was, "Don't get into too much of a stew about things."

At the time of the Adams County Medical Society's centennial in 1950, Dr. Montgomery had been in practice for 72 years. Early in his career, he assisted the Illinois State Board of Health with its sanitary survey of the state. He also held various offices in the Adams County Medical Society, and was the physician in charge of Blessing Hospital for six year. Later he was the surgeon in charge of the Illinois Soldiers' and Sailors' Home. While practicing, he wrote several papers to state and local medical publications and was one of the principle organizers of the Quincy Medical and Literary Association in 1897. He attended to John Wood before the former governor died in 1880.

Dr. Montgomery also was involved in civic organizations. He served on the board of the Quincy Public Library and the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County. He was a Mason and a lifelong Unitarian. He was an early adopter of the automobile and was known to drive people around Quincy pointing out historic properties and what-used-to-be-where when confronting a vacant lot.

He earned many honors over his long years as a practicing physician. In 1917, Prudential Insurance Co. gave him a diamond medal for 25 years of service to that company. He served as a medical examiner. That same year he was appointed to head the Army Board in Quincy. This board was responsible for selecting the men able enough to be drafted into the Army. Congress had passed the Selective Service Act earlier that year anticipating the entry of the United States into World War I. His son Hosmer served in France during that war, where he was wounded. Hosmer wrote letters home to his father that were then published in Quincy newspapers.

Dr. Montgomery also was an early member of the American College of Surgeons. Applicants had to present case histories of 100 surgeries performed in the previous 12 months. If accepted, they were elected by the membership to the college. Later in his career he also was a fellow of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Dr. Montgomery was in his office until the week he died of a heart attack. He is buried in Woodland Cemetery next to his second wife, Edith.

 

Arlis Dittmer is a retired medical librarian. During her years with Blessing Health System, she became interested in medical and nursing history -- both topics frequently overlooked in history.

 

Sources:

1880; Census Place: Quincy, Adams, Ill.; Roll: 174; Page: 361A; Enumeration District: 022.

 

"A Wedding." Quincy Daily Whig, Oct. 13, 1881, p. 8.

 

"Dr. E.B. Montgomery, 96, Believed Nation's Oldest Practicing Physicians Dies." Quincy Herald Whig, Dec. 8, 1954.

 

"Dr. E.B. Montgomery is Highly Honored." Quincy Daily Herald, Sept. 22, 1917, p. 4.

 

"Dr. Montgomery Weds Mrs. Webb." Quincy Daily Herald, Aug. 16, 1917, p. 6.

 

Find A Grave. Find A Grave. findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi

Illinois State Marriage Records. Online index. Illinois State Public Record Offices.

 

"Little Late Locals." Quincy Daily Herald, Oct. 29, 1902, p. 2.

 

"Medical Society 92 Years Old Saturday: Dr. Montgomery Is Its Oldest Member. " Quincy Herald Whig, March 27, 1942.

 

"Montgomery Home Gutted by Ugly Fire." Quincy Daily Whig, March 24, 1914, p. 10.

 

"Obituary." Quincy Daily Whig, Sept. 13, 1898; p. 4.

 

"On Duty at French fighting Front." Quincy Daily Herald, Aug. 22, 1918, p. 3.

 

"Souvenir of the Class of '78; Jefferson Medical College." Philadelphia, Pa.: The Leeds Press, 1898.

 

"The Views of Dr. Montgomery." Quincy Daily Journal, April 28, 1893, p. 7.