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Living through a book

When my friend Jennie handed me a book, I thought it was just another book to read. But I was wrong, it was much more.

      Doctor Woman of the Cumberland is an autobiography by May Cravath Wharton, M. D.  Beginning in 1917, Dr. May practiced medicine in and around Pleasant Hill, Tennessee, for 40 years.  She grew up in the upper Midwest, taught at the University of North Dakota, and studied medicine at the University of Michigan.  When she was in her mid-30s she thought she was settled for life; her private practice in Atlanta, Georgia, was in her words, “vigorous and growing.”

      May met Edwin Wharton, and they married after a short courtship.  They moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he was head of a missionary project and she was a resident physician.  Edwin was called to several churches; eventually they settled in a small New Hampshire community.  Then a call came for Edwin to be principal of Pleasant Hill Academy and a teaching job was offered to May. At age 45, Dr. May left what she considered a “good thing” to move to rural Tennessee.

      The book opens with her arrival at the Crossville train station and her description of riding in the backseat of an ancient Ford.  Dr. May wasn’t readily accepted as a doctor.  Patient and willing to adapt, she was finally called on to doctor all people, many of whom had never received medical care.  In 1920, her husband died, and the people of Pleasant Hill convinced Dr. May to stay.  She travelled by horse and car to care for patients in their homes, and she campaigned for a hospital. 

      In 1937, a house for tuberculosis patients opened, and a visitor remarked that Dr. May’s dream had come true.  She responded, “A dream has no dimensions.”  With the help of many, her work eventually led to a retirement village and a hospital.  Dr. May left a strong legacy of good health care.

         I lived this book.  Although Dr. May was born about twenty years before my grandparents, her experiences were glimpses of my grandparents’ lives. I saw Papa riding horseback through the hills and hollows of Pickett County when Dr. May crossed treacherous paths in Cumberland County.  In the 1950s as I rode with Papa in his pick-up truck, he talked about the good paved roads, unlike the muddy, slick roads he dove on in his Model T.  Dr. May described the roads’ deep ruts and how cars slid backwards on slopes.

      I felt the rope as a metal cylinder dropped into a well when I drew water to fill an aluminum bucket at Granny’s old homeplace.  I saw an elementary school classmate when I read about Dr. May caring for children who needed a good scrubbing and head washing.             Dr. May’s determination, persistence, and team efforts led to success. I don’t know why I’ve never read this book before, but I’ll read it again.  I connected with Dr. May’s story in many ways, and she reminded that anything worth having is worth working for.


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