Thompson led the way as pioneer Smyrna physician

Susan, Harber, Daily news Journal, December 15, 2015

One of the earliest physicians in Rutherford County was Dr. Nimrod Whitfield Thompson. He was born in 1811 in Hartsville, Tenn., to William and Anna Mullins Thompson originally of Albemarle County, Va. He had 14 siblings and learned at an early age the art of compassion, which was so integral to his vocation. As a doctor, he was unable to save the lives of his closest relatives, as medical advancement and total healing were in progress and within a primitive era.

Thompson married Nancy Alford on Nov. 1, 1848. She died at age 34 of consumption, and her son died at age 13 only a couple days before her own passing. Nancy was the daughter of Revolutionary War Captain William Alford, and she was the first burial in Alford Cemetery in Mona. A widower of one year, Dr. Thompson wed Musidora Drake, who bore five children: William, George, Joseph, Annie and Nimrod Jr. Both William and George were born during the turbulence of the Civil War. William lived to 27 years old, and Annie died at 1 year old.

Dr. Thompson painstakingly forged strides in the pioneer days of medicine within Rutherford County and is credited for his impetus and honesty within his profession. He emphasized great study in the betterment of patients. He died on Feb. 1, 1895 and is buried in Thompson Woods (Smyrna) near my home. Within the Thompson Cemetery rests his daughter Annie and son William. Sons George and Joe lay within unmarked graves at Thompson Cemetery.

While researching the history of Dr. Thompson, I became fascinated by the hardscrabble and long-suffering vocation for primal physicians within our rural county. In 1803, there were few doctors living in our area. Most practitioners had a side profession beside medicine that included farming, teaching, storekeeping or serving as a minister. Surgery was limited to opening abscesses, setting fractures and sealing cuts. Doctors seldom utilized cleanliness for prevention of germs. A few doctors used opium in their practice. They traveled by horse and often with a buggy making personal house calls with long hours to tend the sick.

In the early 19th century, there was no mandate for licensed physicians or strict, high standard laws requiring a doctor to follow guidelines for testing or training in Rutherford County. Some healers could proclaim they were a bona fide physician and were validated to cure a patient of their ailment; yet they feigned their medicinal skills to a high degree. Quackery was rampant.

Doctors exchanged medical concoctions that were a matter of hypothesis and often misjudgment. Some patients were advised to carry a buckeye in their pocket to prevent rheumatism. Others would wear a bag of asafetida on a string around their neck to prevent infectious illnesses. The leading ailments of the early 19th century included yellow fever, flu, pneumonia, diphtheria, measles, scarlet fever, typhoid and tuberculosis. A cholera epidemic was rampant in Murfreesboro in June 1833, and calomel was the chosen remedy. On the first day of the outbreak, 30 died, and 109 perished in all.

Practices for curing pneumonia and pleurisy often involved blood-letting, which induced more harm than good. Early doctors were appalled by the lack of education and prevention in patients. Families drank stagnant water in ponds and creeks, and eroded garbage was often found in front yards. The approach of physicians was to promote healthier lifestyles, as they shared limited healing powers one day at a time.

Dr. Thompson was one of the avant-garde leaders in medicine for Rutherford County and served others with zeal and strong intent. The medical advances we have today should be cherished and valued. Our earliest citizens died of illnesses that can now be ably corrected. Our earliest physicians utilized trial and error to evolve into the premium health care of today.

Contact Susan Harber at [email protected].

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