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Thursday, Dec. 18, 2003 02:20 pm

At home with the dean of Springfield physicians, nearly a century ago

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Dr. Wilbur Armstrong Sr. and family celebrate Christmas in 1904
Photo courtesy of the Illinois State Historical Library

When Dr. Wilber Price Armstrong Sr. died on July 7, 1940, Springfield papers reported his death as the passing of "the Dean of City Physicians," an accurate and well-deserved appellation for the man whose 54-year medical career was marked by several notable "firsts." Dr. Armstrong, pictured here today celebrating Christmas with his family in high Victorian style in 1904, delivered the first baby at Springfield (now Memorial) Hospital, brought the first trained nurses to the city and was the first doctor to eschew the horse and carriage for the automobile, a practice that was viewed with skepticism by his peers, but of course one which they themselves were forced to adopt.

Armstrong's grandson, Charles Chapin, a dapper octogenarian who still practices law with Brown, Hay and Stephens, recalls his grandfather as a "lovely, gentle man, humorous but quiet, non-demonstrative, beloved by us and by his patients as well."

Dr. Armstrong was born on July 30, 1860, in Sunbury, Ohio. He attended medical school in Cleveland and was graduated with the class of 1884. In 1885, he removed to Lincoln, Ill., then a town of some 6,000 citizens. There he spent eight years and earned a reputation as a kind and caring physician. In 1893, he purchased the Springfield practice of Dr. John Vincent and here he located at the southwest corner of Sixth and Capitol.

"When he was in Lincoln, he had a number of patients from Williamsville. After he moved his practice to Springfield, the Williamsville people would come here to see him, or he would hitch up a buggy and drive to Williamsville," Chapin says.

The Armstrong home was located at 824 S. Sixth St., now the site of the Franklin Life Insurance Co.'s first tower and the birthplace of Chapin's mother, Mildred. Chapin was a frequent visitor to his grandparents' house and has many fond memories of his time spent there. The Armstrong household consisted of the doctor and wife Anna, daughters Ann, Margaret and Mildred, son Wilber Jr., and Anna's German-born mother, a widow, affectionately known as "Grossie." Within the confines of the residence, she and daughter Anna ruled the roost, and the kindly and quiet doctor wisely deferred to them on questions of household management.

"Don't tell me the Victorian woman was downtrodden," Chapin says. "I won't believe it."

He recalls how the doors of the dining room were kept closed until just before the traditional Sunday afternoon dinner was served and that no one was allowed to enter until they had granted permission. Later, when Wilber Jr., became a surgeon and there were two doctors in the house, the doctors were forbidden from carving the meat. It was always the women who carved the roast or turkey.

Dr. Armstrong's great love was travel, and he and his family visited a great many places throughout his life. In 1902, he took a one year sabbatical and went to Germany. Among the things he returned with was a complete human skeleton, which he named Charlie and used in his practice. Charlie now resides in the Pearson Museum of SIU School of Medicine in Springfield.

Armstrong was no technophobe -- he also purchased many cutting-edge medical instruments from a Berlin manufacturer and by 1909 was using the telephone to schedule his appointments. According to Chapin, Dr. Armstrong owned the second automobile in Springfield, but was the first owner to drive himself. He continued driving until very late in his life and Chapin remembers driving with him on South Grand Avenue when a speeder passed him by.

"There goes a man rushing after ten cents worth of liver," he recalls the doctor saying. That was his statement on the foolishness of hurrying.

Chapin, who even today owns, keeps and rides horses, recalls a lesson taught him by his grandfather when he got his first pony. He was setting off for a ride when Dr. Armstrong noticed that the animal had not been brushed. He said, "Charles, bring me a brush." He brushed the pony, being particularly careful to remove all straw from the tail, and gently chided the youthful Chapin to always remember the animal's comfort, too.

"That's the kind of man he was," Chapin says.

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