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Nineteenth Century Davidson Doctors

by | Nov 3, 2022

William Banks Withers

The town of Davidson, originally called Davidson College, grew up around the college after it opened in 1837. There are few records of early physicians until December of 1858, when Mary Lacy, writing to a friend in Charlotte, noted that “Dr. Leland is going away the first of next week finally, and then we shall be back off for a doctor. Father has written to young Doctor McLean about coming here, but has had no answer. You have so many Doctors in Charlotte you had better send us up one.”

Dr. Leland was John Adams Leland, who had arrived at the college in 1854 as a professor of Natural Philosophy. There is no indication that he was a medical doctor, and he left Davidson in 1860. He was a native of South Carolina, and his tombstone there reads “The very Gentlest of/All human natures/He joined to Courage/Strength.” Dr. W.L.D. McLean did, in fact, come to Davidson, where in 1860 he was living with Presbyterian pastor E.D. Junkin and his wife, Mary. McLean graduated from the University of Pennsylvania College of Medicine in 1858, and apparently lived in Charlotte before coming to Davidson. His tenure was tragically short-lived, however, as he committed suicide by drinking laudanum in 1861.

Around that time, William Alexander Holt, another graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, brought his family to town. Holt was 31 at the time, and had married Julia McMinnis in Orange County, North Carolina, in 1855. In 1860 he was living in Alamance County and working as a physician; his wife was teaching at a female seminary. Also in the household were S.L. Holt, age 54, also a physician, and William and Julia’s 3-year-old son.

At some point around 1861, the Holts bought the house on North Main Street now known as the Copeland House, and Julia remained there while William served as a surgeon in the Confederate Army. After the war, Holt returned to Davidson and served as the town’s doctor until his death in 1886. He practiced out of an office on their property, and historian Mary Beaty noted that he also made house calls for $1, medicine included. The Holts were very involved in the town, where Julia Holt eventually operated a school and a boarding house.

In the mid-1870s, William Banks Withers, Jr., a native of Davidson, who graduated from the college in 1869 and the University of Maryland around 1874, began practicing medicine in Mecklenburg County. According to newspaper reports, by February 1874, “Willie” Withers and another young doctor, Charlie Rozzell, had set up a practice near present-day Denver, N.C.  They made news when they operated on the neck of a former slave named Isaac Mundy, and on March 24, 1874, the Charlotte Democrat noted Isaac was “nearly or quite well.”  According to the Democrat, “Dr. Withers and Rozelle have performed other surgical operations that are almost equally meritorious. It will be cheering to their friends to know that they have started up hill, and that the people with whom they have cast their lots are proud of them.”

Withers married Mary Martha “Molly” Stacey in McDowell County in 1875, and in 1880 they were living in Lemley Township with their three sons. They eventually had four sons, Eugene Stacey Withers, Samuel Meacham Withers, James Johnston Withers, and George Lee Withers. Three of these sons would also become physicians, two of them practicing in Davidson.  Unfortunately, Withers’ life ended suddenly in 1883. According to a number of North Carolina newspapers, in March of that year he was hunting birds “with his son and a little negro boy” when he had a stroke and fell to the ground in the act of shooting. He did not pass out, and went on shooting, but shortly afterwards he fell dead in the field. He is buried in the Davidson College Cemetery. This left Dr. Holt as the only physician in town.

In 1886, the year Dr. Holt died, another physician came to town. Paul Brandon Barringer was not a native of Davidson, but he was the grandson of Robert Hall Morrison, first college president, and the son of General Rufus Barringer and Eugenia Morrison Davidson. While he was not to stay long, he had an outsized influence on medicine in Davidson. According to the University of Virginia alumni directory, Paul Barringer was born in Concord in 1857. In 1860 he was living in Concord with his father and his older sister Anna; his mother had died the year before. He remained in Concord in 1870, but in 1875 he entered the University of Virginia, where he received his medical degree in 1877. A year later he graduated with a medical degree from the University of the City of New York. He then moved to Dallas in Gaston County, North Carolina, where he practiced for three years. In 1882, he married Nannie J. Hannah in Charlottesville, Virginia. After traveling to Europe for two years to study under European specialists, he returned to North Carolina in 1884. In 1886, he moved to Davidson, where he opened a general practice and served as the college physician.

According to a sketch written by Davidson professor William J. Martin, Barringer was a man of “sound scholastic training and attainments, as well as thoroughly equipped in the medical profession.” That fall, he opened a preparatory school of medicine with an enrollment of four students. The student body grew gradually until it included 25 students. This group was the nucleus of the North Carolina Medical College, which operated in Davidson and Charlotte until 1914. In the fall of 1889, he returned to Charlottesville to work at the medical school of the University of Virginia and sold the fledgling medical school to Dr. John Peter Monroe, an 1882 graduate of Davidson College, who had also studied medicine at the University of Virginia.

Barringer went on to work for many years at UVA, at one time serving as Chairman of the Faculty. He ushered in the “modern era” of surgery at the university and was instrumental in starting the University of Virginia Hospital. He caused some controversy, as he was a prominent promoter of the theory of eugenics, which posits that African Americans are inherently inferior to Caucasians. He later moved to Virginia Tech, where he served as its sixth president. When he left there in 1913, he returned to Charlottesville to practice medicine. He died there in 1941.

 When he left Davidson, Barringer sold the medical school to Dr. John Peter Munroe. According to a reminiscence written by Mrs. Sam Presson and published in the Charlotte Observer on February 2, 1936, Munroe was to become well known as a “specialist in internal medicine and as an eminent teacher of medical science” and as “among the foremost medical men of the South.” Dr. Munroe was born in Cumberland County in 1857. His father was an architect and contractor, and his mother was the former Isabella Jane Cameron. He was the youngest of their six sons. He graduated from Davidson College in 1882, and then from the University of Virginia Medical School in 1885. He practiced medicine in Durham for three years before coming to Davidson as the college physician and head of the fledgling medical program. In 1890 he increased the program’s coursework to two years, and in 1893 he received a charter from the North Carolina General Assembly and renamed the program the North Carolina Medical College. In 1897, he built a new brick facility on Concord Road, just opposite the current Davidson College Presbyterian Church, and increased the curriculum to three years. He had a hospital beginning in 1899, but it served only white patients. African Americans had to go to Good Samaritan Hospital in Charlotte for treatment.

In 1902, Munroe saw a need for more intensive clinical training, and opened a clinic in the Southern Real Estate Building in Charlotte. The following year, he moved the clinic to a building on Church Street that had been occupied briefly by Presbyterian Hospital. He also entered into a unique working arrangement with Good Samaritan Hospital, which served African American patients. In 1907, the medical college left Davidson entirely when Munroe moved all of the school’s classes to Charlotte. He continued to lead the school until 1914 when, due to a lack of endowment and insufficient facilities, the program merged with the Richmond Medical College of Virginia.

Dr. Munroe then opened a practice in internal medicine and neurology in Charlotte, later joining with Dr. E.J. Wannamaker and his nephew, Dr. H. Stokes Munroe, in the Munroe Clinic of Internal Medicine. In 1938 he moved back to Davidson, where he practiced until 1940. His influence in both Davidson and Charlotte was immense. According to historian Mary Beaty, he had “wide-ranging interests and a strong business sense.” He never married. While in Davidson he was instrumental in organizing the cotton mills, served in town government, had a drug store, and organized the town’s first bank, the Southern States Trust Company. In Charlotte he helped to establish Presbyterian Hospital and the Charlotte Sanitorium. He belonged to several medical associations, serving as president at times, and was a Fellow of the American College of Physicians. He died in October of 1940 and is buried in the Davidson College Cemetery.

[Note: This is the first of a series. Stay tuned for twentieth century doctors.]

Nancy Griffith

Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989.  She is the author of numerous books and articles on Arkansas and South Carolina history.  She is the author of "Ada Jenkins: The Heart of the Matter," a history of the Ada Jenkins school and center.

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