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Country Doctors Treated Many Ills in 19th Century York County

Sarah Bigler Porter and Benjamin Franklin Porter
How would you like to pay your medical bills by trading goods or services? That was a fairly common practice with 19th century country doctors and their patients.
For example: In 1882 George W. Riale was credited by Brogue physician Benjamin F. Porter for $2.87 for peaches and $10.92 for drilling [sowing] 23 acres of wheat on the doctor’s farm.
In 1881 Joseph W. Gemmill reduced his bill $.50 by providing ½ bushel of oysters and was credited $3.25 for a whole barrel of oysters in January 1882.
For more on Dr. Porter, his Chanceford Township clients, their ills and his fees, see my recent York Sunday News column below:

A Peek into 19th Century Health Care

Dr. Benjamin F. Porter was a Chanceford Twp. physician from 1855 until his death in 1886. A few years ago his great-granddaughter donated two of his ledgers, covering 1870 to 1886, to the York County Heritage Trust Library/Archives. They give a fascinating glimpse into the interaction between a 19th century country doctor and his patients.
B. F. Porter was born in New Castle Co., Del. in 1827 and grew up in Chester Co., Pa. He was educated at a local academy and Delaware College (now University of Delaware). He studied medicine in the office of Dr. J. R. McClurg and also gained hospital training and experience. Porter was granted his degree from Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia in March 1855 and immediately came to the Brogue in Chanceford Twp., York Co., where a sister had already located.
Besides practicing all forms of medicine, including delivering babies, performing surgery and pulling teeth, Porter participated in the community. He was a member of New Harmony Presbyterian Church, served 12 years as a Chanceford Twp. school director and was elected Pennsylvania state representative twice. He learned the history of the area thoroughly enough in 30 years to write the Chanceford Twp. section of Gibson’s History of York County.
Porter married York County school teacher, Sarah Bigler, in 1861. Their son, David B. Porter (b.1863) later became proprietor of the historic Brogue Hotel. Dr. Porter was instrumental in organizing the York County Medical Society in 1870.
Dr. Porter was the sole medical caretaker for hundreds of Chanceford Twp. families. Each household’s head had a ledger page with charges and payments listed, including date and amount. With no street addresses on the unnamed dirt roads, B.F. sometimes added information to identify the client, such as “James Myers (son-in-law of Samuel Smith),” “Mrs. Ebler (widow of John)” or “George E. Markey (Lives at Chas. Smeech).”
Visits, probably meaning the doctor visited the patient, not the other way around, were $1.25; night visits were $2.50. Medicine cost was usually $.50. He pulled many teeth at $.25 each and performed an occasional unnamed surgical operation for $5.00. Accouchement or confinement, both of which mean attending childbirth, was $5.00. In a couple of instances, Porter recorded “too late” behind confinement and only charged $2.50, probably because the baby arrived before the doctor.
Years could go by before payments were made on the accounts. Although cash was often eventually paid, many accounts were credited with the value of foodstuffs or of labor on Dr. Porter’s farm. In 1872 Louisa Uffelman was credited for 100 lbs. of buckwheat flour for $3.00. John Miller (of Joseph) paid with a quarter of beef ($7.00) in 1875 and Robert S. Gemmill settled up with pork, veal, mutton and lamb in 1877. Adam Warner provided the Porters with 1,000 herring in 1879 and 600 herring in 1880 @ $1.30 a hundred, knocking a hefty $20.80 off of his bill. My great-grandfather, Amos Burk, a one-armed Civil War veteran with nine children,
was credited with 100 cucumber pickles, 39 ½ qts. of blackberries and 50 heads of cabbage in 1875 and 40 heads of cabbage in 1878. The Porters and their help must have eaten a lot of sauerkraut.
Farm laborers usually earned $.75 a day off the family bill, working sometimes a week at a time during haymaking. Some were credited by production–Lydia Myers’s son Zachariah husked 120 shocks of corn @ $.04 for a total of $4.80 off her account. The Porters built their large brick house around 1874. It still stands on Rt. 74 just west of the Brogue. That year Benjamin Ellis worked $15.00 off his account with Dr. Porter by hauling lumber, lath and lime from Wrightsville. David Barshinger was credited for $7.50 for five days plastering. Samuel Runkle provided 44 loads of stone for $22.00 off his doctor bills. John Curran hauled 5 ½ square of slate for a $5.00 credit. [A square of slate covers 100 ft. of roof.] According to the History of Chanceford Township…1747-1997, the bricks for the house were made on the property. There must have been a sizable clay deposit there on the farm. Besides providing material for the Porter House, Andrew Tome bought 600 “soft bricks” from Dr. Porter in 1874 @ .40 per hundred and Joseph William Miller purchased 1,000 bricks from him @ $.60 per hundred from him a year later. These charges were duly recorded along with their families’ medical expenses.
A bonus for local and family historians is included in the 1870-1879 ledger: Dr. Porter copied the affidavits, sometime multiple, that he was asked to write for about 25 Civil War veterans applying for pensions into the book. (The South Central Pennsylvania Genealogical Society is transcribing these pages for an upcoming publication.)
These two known ledgers each contain a decade of meticulously recorded information, the second cut short only by Dr. Porter’s death at a relatively young age. He probably created another volume, or perhaps two, to cover the years 1855-1869. David B. Porter was the only surviving child of Benjamin F. and Sarah Porter, but D.B. and his wife, Sarah Sechrist, had a large family, with 11 children surviving when D.B. Porter died in 1940. The other ledger/ledgers could have been passed down another branch of the family. If anyone knows of these records, or similar ones, please contact me or contact Lila Fourhman-Shaull, Director of York County Heritage Trust Library/Archives. With new technology, such records can be copied with no damage to the original, thus adding to our knowledge of York County’s rich history.

Click here for my previous post and column on Dr. Porter’s brother-in-law, Dr. William Bigler.
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