My two articles concerning Dr. Artie Isenberg, an early horse-riding physician in East Tennessee, prompted a letter from Dr. Samuel Taylor Bickley, a former resident of the area. He grew up on a farm not far from the Isenberg home.

Dr. Bickley recalled: “My maternal grandmother, Mrs. Sam Gray, better known as “Mide,” had a large farm on Gray Station Road. Artie would occasionally drop by for dinner if he were in the area. I remember him very well. He was a rather large man and had clacking false teeth that could be quite frightening to small children. His horse had saddlebags full of little containers of pills, instruments and other assorted items necessary to his trade. I remember how his stethoscope had to be assembled by screwing the earpiece to the sounding chamber before it was applied to the chest.”

Bickley recalled when Dr. Isenberg came to their home after he and his sister, Carolyn, had eaten too many mulberries: “He dosed us both with calomel and told our grandmother to make us drink lots of buttermilk. I have not liked buttermilk since.”

Samuel said that the principles of aseptic technique are much different today than they were in those days. He offered an example: “Once my father, Jonathan Bickley, cut his leg with a knife during haying season. He bled a lot and Artie was sent for. Carolyn had just learned to drive and I remember her flying down the driveway and around the corner on two wheels in our 1934 Chevrolet coupe. Artie found my father lying on the granite walk. He just squatted down, pulled a kit from his pocket, took a needle and string from it and sewed up my father’s wound. “Fortunately, John Bickley did not get tetanus or infection. However, he was abed for several days due to blood loss.”

Bickley deemed Dr. Isenberg a versatile physician, saying that he could “prise” a tooth one minute, set a patient’s bone the next and then promptly perform a hernia operation on someone’s pig. Bickley further recalled: “Dr. Isenberg mentioned the difficulties of travel in the early years of the 1900s. Doctors went on horseback, as there were no cars or paved road, often having to ford creeks and rivers on horseback.”

Samuel questioned one statement made in Artie’s diary that Dr. Leab drowned fording a river on horseback: “My grandmother, all her sisters and her cousin Lulu Leab Barnes were all descendants of Dr. Leab and I never heard that story discussed. Dr. Leab may have been the first trained physician in what is now the state of Tennessee, having come from Wurtzburg, Germany and settled in East Tennessee before the Revolutionary War. The doctor lived in a community called Clara, which is near the old Buffalo Ridge Baptist Church burying ground (off Hales Chapel Road). The Leab store at Clara was probably the second post office in Tennessee, the first being at Spurgeon, at the mouth of Cedar Creek on the Holston River. Many of Dr. Leab’s descendents are well-known and useful citizens of the area, including Miss Grace Leab, who taught English at Teacher’s College in Johnson City. She taught me and Carolyn both.”

Samuel commented that Ellen Gresham did a remarkable job of detailing the history of the Leab family in her history of Hale’s Chapel Christian Church. The former resident concluded his letter by saying: “I hope this smattering of local history may be of some interest to your readers.” Let me assure you, Dr. Bickley, that it is. 

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My recent Dr. Artie Isenberg article prompted Berchie Larkins to provide additional glimpses of her celebrated horseback riding grandfather. The proud granddaughter shared with me a short handwritten treatise authored by Artie on Dec. 12, 1947 titled  “Just Another Book – by an Old Horseback Country Doctor – One of the Last of a Vanishing Tribe That Never Can Increase.”

The noted physician related that during the 1890s, aspiring doctors, while still in high school, studied medical books under the direction of their school principals (known as preceptors) before attending medical school: Artie wrote: “Had I known the kind of life these old fellows had to live, I perhaps would not have taken that road in life. I liked to see the sick get well. That was more important than the money I received.”

The curative practitioner fondly recalled his equines: “There were good horses in those days and us old doctors could get them. Our very lives depended on them. If there is a horse heaven, I have some good ones over there – Thugie, Cinco, June and Minnie. They bring back pleasant memories.” 

Isenberg remarked on the difficulty of traversing the rough countryside on horseback: “I forded the Holston and Watauga Rivers from Lyns and Cherokee Ford at Kingsport to South Watuaga. There are a few fords between that I never negotiated, but I crossed swollen creeks many times. “I never did swim my horse across. I talked with a man who saw old Dr. Leab swim his horse across the river at Sarah’s Spring. He drowned in the Watauga River.”

Dr. Isenberg wrote that his profession brought in a modest income. He credited his wife, Lettie, for bringing in about two-thirds of the family earnings, recalling that she once raised turkeys to pay the debt on their five acres of land. My early practice was to cure those whom the other doctors could not or were too careless to cure. I stuck close to my textbooks and made my diagnosis. The diseases we had were typhoid fever, pneumonia, dysentery and diphtheria. They were largely filth bred and filth born. Antitoxins had just come in when I began practice (in 1907). Contaminated water was the rule. Hogs ran loose outside and even slept under schoolhouses and churches. This made the fleas awful.”

Artie remarked that since window screens were unknown to his family then, they had to position a family member by the dinner table to shoo flies while the others ate. “There was not a graded or rocked road in Sullivan or Washington County when I began practice,” wrote Artie. “Good roads make it possible to get sick people to hospitals easier than to get doctors to the sick. I sent many patients to Baltimore to have their appendix taken out. I never did major surgery, but I did know when the surgeon was needed.”

Artie offered some advice for a successful marriage: “My wife and I agreed when we were first married that if one of us got angry, the other was to say nothing. It takes two to make a quarrel. The doctor lamented: “No one ever sang the praises for their old heroes who often left their warm beds to face the cold and went out to save a life as an everyday occurrence.”

Artie concluded by commenting about the changes that occurred in the waning years of his practice: “Horseback doctors were going the way of the dodo bird and passenger pigeon, but we still found some work to do.”   

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Berchie Isenberg Larkins is proud of her legendary grandpa, Jacob Artemas “Artie” Isenberg (1877-1951), one of the last horseback-riding doctors in East Tennessee. She related his story in a recent interview.

The physician and his family lived in Sullivan County near the Washington County line, where Artie provided medical services to the two counties for over 40 years. The equestrian chose horseback as his mode of transportation, preferring it to wheeled vehicles – buggies, wagons and automobiles. He never owned a car.


Artie Isenberg in his younger days


    An older Dr. Isenberg riding Old Minnie

The six-foot three-inch medical man maintained between 12 and 15 horses on his farm. He named his first one Thugie after a popular medicine of that day; his last one was called Old Minnie. Isenberg once owned an Appaloosa that would dash off immediately when its rider’s foot was placed in the stirrup, requiring that everything be securely attached to the saddle before mounting. Sometimes Artie and his loyal steed had to navigate creeks, ford rivers and trod deep mud to arrive at his requested destination.

Visits to the sick resulted in stays ranging from a few minutes to several days, depending on the patient’s condition and distance from the doctor’s home. The family would reciprocate by feeding their pipe-smoking special guest hot cooked meals and providing lodging – a cot, couch or chair – near the ailing person. On a few occasions, Dr. Isenberg brought patients home with him so his wife, Lettie, could nurse them back to health while he made other visits.

Mrs. Larkins remembers that her broad-shouldered grandpa usually wore an old gray pin-stripped suit, white dress shirt and worn-out broadband felt hat. Protective clothing included “arctics,” waterproof footwear that fit over regular shoes, and “slickers,” rubberized outer garments used as rainwear. The doctor would occasionally return home so frozen that his wife would meet him at the barn with a teakettle of warm water to thaw his legs and feet and restore feeling to them.

Dr. Isenberg’s formal education began in 1901 when he enrolled at Kentucky University in Louisville.  A photo taken in the college’s Anatomy 101 class shows the future physician and several classmates standing behind a cadaver lying on a board supported by two sawhorses. Artie was granted a temporary license to practice medicine or surgery in the State of Tennessee in 1907 from Elizabethton and a permanent one a year later from Knoxville.

The newly authorized practitioner returned to East Tennessee and interned a short time with a Dr. Horne who lived near Colonial Heights. Artie kept a human skeleton in his room until his stepmother abruptly buried it behind their house. She told her stepson the poor soul deserved to be in a grave and not propped up in somebody’s house.

Dr. Isenberg taught classes briefly at Depew’s Chapel near Bay’s Mountain and later at Pactolus School on the Crooked Road. It was at this latter location that Artie met his future wife, Mary Lettie Hunt. The couple soon married and eventually became the parents of two boys and two girls.

Berchie recalled: “My grandpa was hired by the CC&O Railroad to treat worker injuries incurred on the job.” This was short-lived and he soon established his own private practice. Artie’s professional services included being a doctor, dentist and veterinarian. During visits to homes, he often treated their horse, cow, mule or hog. During the flu epidemic of 1919, the doctor spent much of his time traveling from one home to another. He once remarked that he never lost a patient to the outbreak.

Isenberg became known for his accurate diagnostic skills. Although he routinely performed minor surgery, he referred those requiring major operations to one of the closest cities having a hospital – Roanoke, Chattanooga and later Bristol. Berchie recalls when her grandpa would cover a sick person with several blankets, turn the heat up as high as possible and cause him or her to sweat profusely, allowing him to perform a visual perspiration analysis.

Mrs. Larkins further remembers: “A young child had been incorrectly diagnosed with a brain tumor. Grandpa was called in and quickly determined the youngster to be suffering from TB (tuberculosis) of the brain.” Artie loved attending the Appalachian Fair each year in Gray, often providing complimentary doctoral consultations with those with whom he came in contact.

A humorous incident occurred at the home of one of Artie’s female patients. He placed a thermometer in her mouth and waited the traditional three minutesto read it. Afterwards, the woman’s husband asked if he could buy “one of those contraptions.” He explained that this was the first time in all the years they had been married that she had stopped talking for three minutes during non-sleeping hours.

Dr. Isenberg once rode to a residence to assist with the delivery of a baby. After examining the lady, he unexpectedly informed her that she wasn’t pregnant. She disputed his diagnosis, telling him that she been married long enough to have a baby.

Sundays brought an influx of people suffering from dental problems to the doctor’s home. Artie placed two wooden straight chairs back-to-back and asked his patient to straddle one chair and hold on tightly to the back rails. The old-timey doctor then put his knee on the other chair, reached into the person’s mouth with his special forceps and yanked on the bad tooth until it came out. Frequently, the patient was pulled out of the chair, onto the floor and even off of it before the tooth finally released its grip.

Berchie has her grandfather’s priceless collection of books, journals and other artifacts. Unfortunately, the doctor’s medical bag and contents were sold years ago. Isenberg kept meticulous records of his patients’ names, dates of visits and fees charged. There were also several “Memorandum of Births, small booklets detailing the names of the parents and baby. Many entries simply indicated “male” or “female.”

An examination of the collection’s massive data reveals compensation in the form of cash, goods and labor. The books between 1912 and 1918 were especially interesting. Credit was granted for a day’s work at the Isenberg home – working in the garden: $1.00, hauling hay: $1.25, working on the roof: $1.50 and killing hogs: (amount not shown). Another entry reduced a patient’s bill by $5 after Artie was given a pig. 

The granddaughter’s collection also contained several personalized prescription pads from Jones-Vance Drug Store (Kertesy Korner) in Johnson City; the Merry Garden, Inc., Broad Street, Kingsport; and the Clinchfield Drug Company, Market and Broad, Kingsport. One receipt on file is a July 11, 1914 order to Masengill Brothers Pharmacy in Bristol for a one-inch spool of “Ad. Plaster” at a cost of $.50 plus $.05 Parcel Post.

About 1951, illness struck the now-aging horseback-riding doctor, greatly restricting his practice. People began picking him up in their automobiles and driving him to a sick person’s home. Artie’s oft-quoted two-step philosophy for his successful medical practice was “making early diagnosis and using the right medication.”

Berchie Larkins concluded the interview by saying that her 74-year-old renowned grandpa “met the Great Physician in December 1951,” concluding a long and impressive medical career. 

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