Friday, May 7, 1999
Treasures of Carlisle's Past: Dr. Austin Marsh: Dentist, Physician, Good Neighbor
Today, Carlisle boasts one dental office in its center and several residents who practice dentistry or medicine in surrounding communities. These modern healthcare professionals follow in the tradition of an important nineteenth century Carlislean, Dr. Austin Marsh. Dr. Marsh had the distinction of serving the town of Carlisle as physician for over sixty years, from 1838 to 1898. He represented the traditional "country doctor" so important to rural New England towns in the 1800s. Before the age of specialization, he practiced not only medicine, but also dentistry and pharmacy. A respected citizen, he was also active in town affairs. A number of his personal and professional possessions are among the historical collections of the town and historical society.
In 1838 the Town Meeting formed a special commission to find a new medical practitioner, since Carlisle had been without one since 1835. Within a few months the committee invited Dr. Marsh, then practicing in Lowell, to establish himself in Carlisle.
The young doctor had been born and schooled in Sharon, Vermont before graduating from Dartmouth Medical College in 1835. Both his Dartmouth diploma and his 1839 Certificate of Admittance into the Massachusetts Medical Society survive in our collections.
A year after moving to Carlisle, Dr. Marsh married Mary W. Skelton of Pelham, N.H., bringing his bride to reside with him in the Wheat Tavern in Carlisle. From there the couple moved to one half of a two family dwelling at 75 Lowell Street (which later burned). In 1879 Marsh purchased land and constructed a ten-room house at 46 Lowell Road. Perhaps it was there that his "trade sign" hung.
In the true tradition of country doctors, Dr. Marsh would saddle his horse and visit a patient in need of medical attention. We are told that he wore a "tall hat" when he made his house calls. His leather saddle bags (also part of the historical collections ) would have held medicines and medical instruments, such as the dental forceps which likewise survive in the collections. Dental surgery was one of the more common types of surgery in earlier times. Early physicians, particularly in rural communities, performed the functions of family practitioner, specialist, dentist and pharmacist. The collections contain both a mortar and pestle and a special three-piece pill board used by Dr. Marsh to prepare medicines.
In addition to the typical seasonal ailments with which we are familiar today, 19th-century Americans worried most about malaria (often called the "ague") and tuberculosis (generally referred to as "consumption"). In 1832 Asiatic cholera was introduced into America, and became another cause for concern and the medical profession saw a fourfold increase between 1790 and 1840, with several medical colleges opening. Homeopathy and botanical medicine also played a significant role during this period. Toward the middle of the century, numerous "how-to" household books provided information on diet and exercise and home remedies as housekeeping became more of a "science." Godey's Ladies Book is one of the best known. Just as today we often use "over-the-counter" drugs to alleviate common symptoms, 19th-century Americans depended on several "patent" medicines and tinctures, one being Lydia Pinkham's "tonic."
Historians have noted that physicians, while highly respected, were not usually wealthy. Typical charges might be as high as one to two dollars a visit (plus 50 cents per mile) for a city doctor, down to 25 or 50 cents per visit in rural areas. Our forefathers and foremothers might have paid for their medical services "in kind," with contributions of food products grown on their farms, if they could not pay in actual cash. Carlisle was fortunate to attract a man with Austin Marsh's ability and community spirit. He was not only physician, but friend, neighbor and good citizen. He attended to his medical practice and together with his wife raised three children, Susie, George Palmer Austin, and Mary Amanda. (Their baby cradles and carriage are also in the historical collections.) In addition, the doctor was active in town politics, serving as selectman, town clerk and a member of the school committee. Of particular interest as Carlisle moves forward with its library building plans, is his appointment as one of the first five library supervisors on March 18, 1872.
Dr. Marsh retired in 1898 after practicing medicine for 63 years, 60 of those in Carlisle! Beloved by his fellow townspeople, he rests today in Green Cemetery, while his belongings in the historical collections recall the service of this man and the role he played in Carlisle's past.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito