Originally written for the Journal of the Mississippi State Medical Association, July 2003
Prologue: A Reason for Remembering
The medical professional that today is known as the "Family Physician" suffers from a crisis of identity. Prior to 1945 more than 80% of American physicians were general practitioners. Medical specialists were the exception, not the rule, and were only to be found in the big city teaching hospitals. World War II changed many things in this country, not the least of which was the distinctive persona of the GP (general practitioner. The technology born on the fields of battle brought astounding new surgical techniques and a miraculous thing called "antibiotics." Advances in medicine made it possible to actually cure patients once in a while! But, when healthcare became an industry, patients became consumers, and they wanted nothing but the "newest and best" we had to offer. It wasn't long before people began expecting miracles from their physicians. The Age of Medical Specialization was born, and virtually overnight the "horse and buggy" GP became an anachronism.
A 1945 survey of all US med schools revealed that only about a third of the students planned to enter general practice upon graduation. The old die-hard breed of GPs was not about to become obsolete, however. In 1949 some visionaries formed a new national medical society they called the American Academy of General Practice. Around 1970, the AAGP (in yet another effort to seek modernization and renewed validity as a medical specialty) reincarnated itself as the American Academy of Family Physicians. The first Family Medicine Residency programs in teaching hospitals were then established against the loud protests of the existing medical university status quo. The vast majority of today's general practice doctors are members of this organization and label themselves FPs or Family Physicians. The AAFP was the first medical specialty to require its members to complete continuing medical education studies throughout their entire careers.
Despite this distinguished evolution of family doctors our species continues to be threatened. And just as it did 50 years ago, the threat continues to emanate from socio-economic pressures making it increasingly more difficult to practice as a small town doctor.
There has only been one physician in Tippah County whose career actually spanned that evolution from a "Horse and Buggy Doctor" of the 1920's to a member of the AAFP in the 1980's. Remarkably it was a member of that still rare breed, the female physician, one Dr. Jessie Mauney of Blue Mountain, who made the transition. The story of her long life of service to our community needs telling.
Young Jessie: Her Origins as a Physician and Her Noble Reason for Being
Dr. Jessie Mauney was born on October 13, 1893, "out east of Ripley" to Wallace Valentine Mauney and Harriet Elizabeth McAlister Mauney. The census of 1900 records their children as Presley N., Dora, Samuel McAlister, Jessie, and Annie. Her mother Harriet died in 1907 at age 49. Little is known of this family's early years.
So we'll begin with her college annual photo and inscription from her senior year at Blue Mountain College in 1912. Here is shown a photo of a demure Jessie finishing college at age 19, hairnet in place, rather plain, eyes cast downward. Her hometown was listed as Blue Mountain, Mississippi and her descriptive quotation was ...
"She has a glowing heart they say,
Though calm her seeming be."
Apparently early on she was a business major. "The click, click of the typewriter falls as sweet music upon Jessie's ears. After studying the strange hieroglyphics of stenography for several months, she has learned to imitate the characteristic scratches and curves and to transcribe them in good English form. She has so far excelled her colleagues that she is not the best stenographer in an office where scores work daily." Jessie was a member of the Modenian Literary Society and matriculated from Blue Mountain with the M.E.L. Degree (Mistress of the English Language).
After graduation, Miss Mauney taught school, as did most young women with college diplomas. Then in 1918, an event occurred in the Mauney family that changed the course of Jessie's life and accordingly the history of Tippah County. Jessie's brother, Sam, three years her senior, had attended Mississippi Heights Academy and then Medical School. Sam had a burgeoning medical practice in Earle, Arkansas but enlisted in the Army with the advent of World War I. He received a commission as a First Lieutenant but rapidly rose to the rank of Captain. Ripley's Southern Sentinel records on November 27, 1918, that "Another bright young life from the community has gone to make up the ever-increasing toll of this grim war. "Captain Sam Mauney," one of the best and brightest young men from one of the county's best families" was lost to a three-week battle with pneumonia at the base hospital in Nantes France. The widowed Mr. Mauney was devastated by Sam's untimely death and easily encouraged Jessie (who was no real fan of school teaching) to study medicine. She always said her father was "dead set on having a doctor in the family." Jessie then began postgraduate study at the University of Mississippi to prepare for medical school. She studied a year in Oxford and then attended Sophie Newcomb in New Orleans. She then began applying for admission to medical schools. Before his death in 2002, Jessie's longtime friend Garland Ellison of Blue Mountain relates this interesting anecdote:
"Miss Mauney told me that she applied to Tulane Medical School in New Orleans and received a letter of acceptance. She walked in there to the admissions office on the first day of the term and the man down there says, "Oh, no, you can't go to medical school here. We thought Jessie Mauney was a man!" So she pulls out her purse and stacks a pile of money on his desk to cover the first year's tuition in advance. He looks at the money, and then he looks at her and says, 'Sit down right here in this chair and wait till I get back.' Dr. Mauney said he was 'gone and gone and gone for what seemed like ages, then returned with the President of Tulane Medical School.' The President was emphatically against the idea of admitting a woman to his school, but Jessie and her cash money were very persuasive. He set down some rules and reservations for her to abide by. Rule one was that she was to sit in the back of the room and keep quiet in every class so as not to distract the male students from their studies. By the fourth year she had won them over and they let her sit in the front row!"
Jessie received her M.D. in 1925 and did her internship year in Chester, Pennsylvania City Hospital. After that year, Dr. Mauney returned to Louisiana where she worked for the State Board of Health for a time. Then in 1927, Dr. Mauney moved back into her Blue Mountain homestead with baby sister Annie. She set up her clinic on one end of their rambling white home on West Main Street. She never again had cause to move throughout the course of her life or practice.
Pioneering Days: That Little Black Bag, That Coupe Car, and That Hat
The Mauney family's beloved patriarch W.V. Mauney died in 1929 but had lived to see his dream of having a physician in the family come to fruition. Mr. Mauney's obituary records that the oldest son, Presley, resided in Baker, Oregon that year. Nothing more is known of him. The eldest daughter Dora (Mrs. W.L.) Gunn lived in Brownfield, Mississippi.
From the beginning, Annie kept house and garden, kept the books, cooked, and assisted Jessie whenever called upon. Jessie ran her clinic "full bore" according to those who knew her best. She saw patients in her home and made numerous house calls throughout the course of a day. Most nights might be interrupted by knocks on their door for medical assistance, or someone coming to fetch her to attend a birth. Miss Annie said that many nights Dr. Mauney never laid her glasses down. When she wasn't busy with a patient she was almost invariably reading medical journals to keep up to date. Dr. Mauney was quoted as saying that she had to have a wagon with four mules hitched to it for many years to get over the muddy rutted back roads of Tippah, Union, and Benton counties.... "In these races with the stork, the baby arrived safely, the doctor arrived safely and the old mules got to rest!"
When automobiles became more available and dependable, Dr. Mauney learned to drive. That is, if you want to call it what she did behind the wheel of a car "driving." Aiming is a better term. Garland Ellison, a long-time friend of Dr. Mauney and proprietor of the Blue Mountain City Drug Company, said... "She was partial to Ford coupe cars and she would drive 'em wide open and go as far out as she could in the car. Someone in the patient's family would meet her at the jumping off place.' She'd climb in the back of their old wagon and wrap herself up in a tarpaulin until they reached the old shack where the patient was waiting. Sometimes she would get stuck and have to walk for miles in the dark. But, I don't reckon she ever said 'no' when asked to come. When she would get to her sick patient or maybe it would be a woman in labor, she would sit up with them all night long."
Mr. Ellison's wife, Jewell, reported, "Dr. Mauney had her trademarks. If you saw her out in public she carried her old black leather bag and come summer or winter she always a little pillbox type hat. For a long time, she had a big old dog that she would let ride with her on house calls. Why, she even trained that dog to go down to the post office to pick up her mail!" Her nephew James Gunn of Brownfield once related, "Aunt Jessie was notorious for her driving. When you saw her coming, you knew you'd better get the kids out of the way. She has jumped more ditches than anyone in the country and had her share of collisions.
She would trade-in a new car fairly often, but you wouldn't want hers....it would be worn slap out!"
Though Garland Ellison was not a licensed pharmacist, he and his wife Jewell owned and operated the town drug store and soda fountain. They were also devoted patients and made no secret of their love and deep admiration for Blue Mountain's "little doctor lady." When the Ellisons first came to town in the 1930's, there were four practicing physicians there... Dr. Mauney, Dr. Mayfield, Dr. Lane, and Dr. Hill. Garland said, "That Hill feller didn't have a license, but he operated anyway."
Garland described Dr. Mauney's prices... "I think in the 50's and 60's she got a dollar for an office call, two dollars for an in-town house call, and three if she had to go out in the countryside. But, she was what you'd call a real old-time country doctor and lots of times she would take her pay in chicken, eggs, hams or vegetables and such. It was pretty back then.
"I would say that she probably filled 95% of her own prescriptions. She had a drug room filled with all kinds of medicines. 'Course, there wasn't many different drugs as there are now. She would give you the medicine in little brown envelopes or bottles if it was a liquid. She fixed it all herself and wrote the directions on it. But one peculiarity about it, she would never sign her name on them."
"She never kept records of patients except in her head, and how in the world she done it, I don't know. but she did. She never did take Medicare or Medicaid either. She would not take any insurance papers or anything like that. Everything was on a cash basis with her. She told me one time she didn't have the time or the patience to fool with making out insurance.
"It took me a while to warm up to her. She had ways about her that were very peculiar. She worked twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. She was just as good as she could be."
Equanimity: Her Personality and Her Philosophy of Life and Medicine
In 1950 a county hospital opened in Ripley. There were several physicians with strong ties with the hospital, the most vocal of whom was Dr. John Tate. According to Dot Presley Stark who was an R.N. and Nurse-Anesthetist at Tippah County Hospital in those days, there were some hard feelings between Dr. Mauney and Dr. Tate..."They never had what you'd call WORDS, but there was friction between them. Dr. Tate did a lot of surgery in his practice and once accused Dr. Mauney of sending her 'cash paying patients' to Dr. Shands in New Albany and sending her charity cases to him. He told her that if that was all she was going to send him, then he didn't want ANY of her patients."
At that time Dr. Mauney was doing a few obstetrical cases in the Ripley Hospital. The doctors there made light of her old-fashioned techniques, such as "actually using gloves when she delivered a baby," allowing fathers to observe the delivery through a window, the use of "drop-either anesthesia for labor" and the fact that she chose not to socialize with her fellow physicians.
Jessie Mauney did not mind being labeled "old" or even "old-fogey." But she would not tolerate being taken lightly. So, she quit going to the hospital entirely and stuck to her office practice. And thereafter she always favored the New Albany Hospital.
In 1969 Dr. Jessie Mauney received one of the highest public honors that was ever bestowed upon her. She was chosen as Blue Mountain College's first Alumna of the Year.
"An inspiration to the young and a consolation to the old; an example of the type of selfless love for mankind exhibited by Jesus, the Savior of Men: a life characterized by hard work, a warm heart and skilled hands-this is our unworthy picture of DR. MAUNEY.
"The hasty search of worldly accomplishments for which we can justify this worldly honor does not succeed in this case for this person dwells in another land. She leads no movements other than life itself, and she attends no meeting save the living and the dead.
"Therefore, it is with honor, and a healthy feeling of inadequacy, that we respectfully recognize Jessie Mauney as OUTSTANDING ALUMNA OF BMC FOR 1969."
Dr. Mauney was escorted to the podium by Alumnae President Mrs. Edith Taylor Paschal and was presented with a purple orchid. She expressed in her characteristic manner "how unworthy she felt to receive this honor" and pledged to strive to continue to live up to the ideals of the college.
Dr. Mauney had her first serious wreck that same year. There were other major setbacks. Miss Ann suffered a disabling stroke and died in 1962. They were a well-oiled team and this was a crushing blow for Dr. Mauney. But, she persevered. She hired a dedicated live-housekeeper, Mrs. Maybelle Miller, to fill in the large gap left by Miss Ann's death. She began depending on her three nephews more. James Gunn stepped in and took care of ordering supplies and paying her bills.
It is obvious from all that has been said here that Jessie Mauney never bothered with matrimony. There is no evidence, written or spoken, of Dr. Mauney having any "love interest" throughout her long life. Long time colleague, Dr. David Ellis of New Albany said that she was "thoroughly married to medicine... strictly all business."
In 1980 Jessie had another very serious car wreck that left her quite immobile for a time. He nephew James Gunn virtually became her arms and legs in daily practice.
Then on March 5, 1981, a grand thing happened. Channel 5 Action News came to Blue Mountain and newsman Roger Cooper did a very delightful feature segment on Dr. Mauney. Still extant is the memorable videotape of this interview.... the ONLY interview Dr. Mauney ever gave.
The beauty of the film is it revelation of that quality physicians call "equanimity" in the 87-year-old physician. Stoic, imperturbable, self-controlled, serene in today's lingo..."Cool." Nothing says it better than her own words.
Dr. Mauney: "My philosophy has always been that if you could hoe the whole row of cotton, hoe it. If you got to where you couldn't hoe but half of it, hoe it. If you got down to one stalk, hoe it and when you got past that, sit at the end of the row and twiddle your thumbs, and watch the other fellow."
Roger Cooper: "Sounds like a good philosophy to me."
Dr. Mauney: "Real good, follow it."
Roger Cooper: "Did you ever wish you were a doctor in a big medical center?"
Dr. Mauney: "No, no, not now. I may have wished it at first but I don't
anymore. That personal contact is totally lacking."
Roger Cooper: "Would you be lost without medicine?"
Dr. Mauney: I sure would. I can't think of anything more miserable than not
seeing patients every day."
Roger Cooper: "What does that do for you, to see patients every day?"
Dr. Mauney: "It makes you feel like you are still worth something in the world."
Roger Cooper: "Dr. Mauney recently cut down on her practice. The new
shorter hours are 9 to 5. She thinks too many people suffer from
'hospital fever." What does 'hospital fever' mean?
Dr. Mauney: (chuckling)... "That means if you've got an ache in your big toe,
you've got to go to the hospital !"
More on her philosophy....
Dr. Mauney: "Well, my father's theory was, there was more to life than just the
dollar you made, and he told me that he hoped I would never
make the dollar my god in my practice."
Roger Cooper: "When are you going to stop practicing medicine?"
Dr. Mauney: (laughing)... "I hope to stop twenty-four hours before I go to the
Roger Cooper: "And the bet around Blue Mountain is that there will be a
telephone in the coffin so she can keep calling in prescriptions
During this interview, Mr. Cooper asked a patient in Dr. Mauney's parking lot
"What Kind of doctor is Dr. Mauney?" Her comment was simple and succinct,
"Why she is just a GOOD Doctor. It's hard to describe her. The best! Yes, she
is the best that ever was."
Epilogue: Personal Observations on a Marvelous Life Well-Lived
It simply wouldn't be proper to share this brief biography of Jessie Mauney without adding notes about my own experiences with "The Good Doctor."
As a youngster, I was prone to asthma attacks and I recall several hurried nocturnal trips with my parents to Dr. Mauney's clinic for treatment. Usually, after an injection of epinephrine, I would be right as rain. I once asked her what was wrong with me and she told me that I had the "epizootic." She proceeded to mop out my throat with that horrible concoction for which she was so famous. (On occasion I still have patients request me to do this!) On one particularly memorable January night, my asthma attack warranted 3 injections. My daddy fearing the extra expense, sheepishly asked how much he owed her. She said, "How much do you have?" Daddy said, "I've got a five dollar bill." To this, she replied, "It'll be five dollars." I have a vivid recollection of her putting the money away in a cigar box.
One incident that cemented a reverence for her in my mind occurred in 1968. In retrospect, it was a small thing, but it became a revelation of what I wanted to do with my own life. In March of that year, during spring holidays, my mother had elective surgery done by Dr. Gene Bramlitt in the New Albany Hospital. There was a surprise 12-inch snow that week, and my mother talked the doctor into letting her come home much sooner than she should have. As luck would have it, she developed complications and really got in a fix! My daddy called Dr. Mauney and she plowed out over some of Tippah County's worst roads in the snow to come to see her. I was galvanized by Dr. Mauney coolly performing her routine medical magic. I made mental notes of everything about her that day... the jaunty hat, her tiny stooped frame, her steel gray hair pulled back into a bun, thick glasses, severe black orthopedic shoes, a hint of an overbite, very small and expressive hands. She and her accouterments seemed to emanate a faint but not unpleasant medicinal aroma.
Doing the math now that her true birth date is known, Dr. Mauney would have been 75 at the time. I was twelve. One quirk of the intensely private Dr. Mauney was that she never revealed her age. Because her appearance basically didn't change, people claimed that she was "90 something" for the last twenty years of her life.
On acceptance to med school in 1976, I was sent a routine physical exam form for completion. I walked across Main Street from Blue Mountain College and sat in Dr. Mauney's waiting room for my last time as her patient. I soaked in the pungent antiseptic smell of her office and once again observed Miss Ann's pretty oil paintings of birds that still graced her walls. As was her custom, she opened the door and said: "Come along, come along." After a very brief exam, she intoned "Well, I believe you're gonna live till you die" and wished me luck in my studies. I tried to pay her, but she said "No charge to fellow doctors."
While performing her last house call in 1980, Dr. Mauney had another serious car wreck. This portended the downward spiral of her health. A couple of years later she fell and suffered a hip fracture. Her personal friend and physician, Dr. David Ellis was called to come. He remembers being chastised by Dr. Mauney... "It shore too you a long time to drive from New Albany to Blue Mountain!" Dr. Ellis says that he gruffly chided her by saying "I guess this will wind it up for you old gal," but he recalls two weeks later she was scooting from room to room in her wheelchair seeing patients..."She sure did hate to quit."
Even later, when she was felled by a stroke, she continued working. her devoted patients, apparently believing Dr. Mauney was invincible, continued to flock to her bedside for treatment. And she kept phoning in prescriptions. Her nephew James Gunn finally realized that her judgment was failing and called the Mississippi Board of Medical Licensure for advice. The prescribed and chosen course was to tell Dr. Mauney that somehow her license had been misplaced and she would simply have to stop practicing. Mr. Gunn closed Dr. Mauney's doors to patients on May 28, 1984.
Dr. Mauney's own health improved enough that she was able to do something she rarely ever had time to do before... sit out on her porch and relax. Judge Kevin Hall remembers that one afternoon he drove by... "Little Dr. Mauney was sitting out there and looked so pitiful; I stopped and asked her if there was anything in this world she could think of she wanted. She said, 'I'd like to have a REAL GOOD watermelon. I had one in my pickup that I had raised and I asked here where was a knife to cut it with. She said, 'BUST IT!' She dug that melon out with her little hands and said it was the best thing she'd ever eat in her life."
She had arrived at the point in her life where she "sat at the end of the row and watched the other fellow."
One day in the dead of winter of early 1985, we got a couple of inches of snow. My phone rang and it was Mr. Gunn asking if I would mind coming to check on Dr. Mauney. As I drove out I recalled how she had come to our own house one snowy day. At this point, Dr. Mauney had suffered another stroke and was totally bedridden. Her eyes were vacant as a result of pneumonia and mild dehydration. I'm not quite sure if she understood when I told her who I was. The I let her in on a little secret. I told her that I had named my son Jesse after her. She smiled weakly, tried to speak and nodded in understanding. I gave her an antibiotic injection and wrote prescriptions and instructions for her. He pulled out his wallet and tried to pay me. It was indeed an honor for me to return a favor by saying "No charge to fellow doctors." Mr. Gunn insisted that I come in to her old office and choose a memento, anything in the office that belonged to Dr. Mauney that I might like to have. He may as well have offered me a million dollars. I chose her marvelous old iron examination table!"
After 60 years of devotion to her profession, Jessie Mauney died at age 92 on November 14, 1985. Tippah and Union County physicians were asked to serve as honorary pallbearers. She is buried alongside her family in the Blue Mountain Cemetery.
It has been almost 20 years since Jessie Mauney last danced with the great love of her life...Medicine. I practice only a couple of miles from her stomping grounds and I am fully aware of the indelible mark she left on this community. Hardly a week passes that someone doesn't relate a "Dr. Mauney tale" to me, or ask for a prescription for some special salve or potion that she commonly used What I love most are those times when one of my sweet little patients from Blue Mountain slips and out of long-standing habit addresses me as Dr. Mauney. I just smile real big and say, "Why thank you, ma'm for the great compliment!"
This story could only have been written about Dr. Mauney posthumously. She would not have appreciated my sentimentality. She would have denied herself as being worthy of praise. And she would have been mad as a wet hen about me telling her age. I think she would have been pleased with the title though. After all, her highest ambition in life was simply to be "A Good Doctor."
Tommy Covington and staff of Ripley Public Library
Carla Benson of Blue Mountain College (photos)
Dr. David Ellis of New Albany
Dot Presley Stark, R.N. of Ripley
Garland And Jewell Ellision of Blue Mountain (both posthumously)
All of Dr. Mauney's patients who continue to bless me by sharing their
wonderful memories of an ordinary lady who performed an extraordinary job.