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Friday, February 28, 2014

Dr. Joseph N. Bynum, Country Doctor of Farmville, Pitt County, North Carolina

Note that Laupus Library is closely acquainted with the Country Doctor Museum of Bailey, North Carolina in Wilson County and quite close to where the Bynum family comes from.  

One of the best parts of working at Laupus Library on East Carolina University's medical campus is that I get to study the way doctors worked in the eighteenth century, both before and after the Civil War, sometimes during the Civil War, and then, of course, afterward.  A local medical professional by the name of Joseph Nicholas Bynum lived just north of the town of Marlboro, closest to the present Farmville, Pitt County, North Carolina (see map).  If you've ever eaten at the Bojangles just off the "Farmville" exit from Hwy 264, then you were on the old Richard A. Bynum homeplace.  This was Joseph's brother and business partner. 

Field Map of Lieut. Koerner's military survey between Neuse and Tar Rivers North Carolina (1863) showing actual locations of residents and businesses.  Source: NC Maps at:

The Bynum family is an old and prolific one.  They hail from Edgecombe County, part of which became Wilson County in 1855.  Many of their descendants survived and propagated and the family had wealth.  Almost all Bynums owned slaves, they went to the finer schools, even started one of their own, and owned huge tracts of land between Farmville and Wilson, sometimes dipping south into nearby Greene County, in the Speight's Bridge region.  Joseph Nicholas Bynum was born 17 May 1832 to Gideon Bynum and Sarah Jane May.  Joseph lived in the Marlboro area almost all of his life where his family had extensive lumber operations and he and his brother ran a general store after the war almost until his death.

Page 87 of the 1866 accounts of R. A. Bynum and brother J. N. Bynum.  This is the first page of the items used by Dr. Joseph N. Bynum himself.  Very few medicines appear on the list, some castor oil and Vermifuge (probably used to worm farm animals).  The rest are general house or farm items.  There do seem to be more cotton and hygienic materials for the doctor than for his brother.

The old plank road ran straight through Marlboro and it was the center of west Pitt commercial activity in the 19th century.  Not until the construction of Norfolk and Southern railroad did Farmville come into existence, eclipsing Marlboro.  Still, the greater metropolis of Greenville already overshadowed Marlboro, even more after the beginning of East Carolina Teacher's Training School (ECU today) in 1907. 

Thus, the confusion over Joseph's time in medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, 1854-1857.*  In one record, he lists his residence as "Marlboro," but in the other, as "Greenville."  It is interesting to note that many Eastern North Carolina country doctors studied at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond and did their internships at the University of Pennsylvania.  This includes at least two generations of the Garrentons from Currituck and Pitt Counties and others that I have encountered in the northeastern part of the state. 

  • * From "The Line of James Bynum (c1690 – 1763), Grandson of John Bynum," Bob's Genealogy Filing Cabinet:  "He received a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1857 as a classmate of his distant cousins Mark Wesley Bynum and Joseph Medicus Bynum."

University of Pennsylvania 1855 student roster
It is interesting that country doctors of this time were not solely known for their "doctoring."  Doctoring was considered something of a service, like providing agricultural aid or mechanic work for farm machinery or other equipment.  Dr. Todd Savitt gave a lecture recently on the 19th century Country Doctor at ECU and he reckoned that families of this time did much of their doctoring from home... for doctors were often hard to reach. 

Many references like Dr. Brown's Recipes and Information for Everybody gave more than just simple homeopathic remedies.  My grandmother from Burgaw often boasted of her abilities in medicine and I once tested her knowledge with an 1888 copy of this book.  Indeed, she and her oldest daughter (my Aunt Marie) conferred with one another over every question like medical professionals.  Their final answers were usually quite close to the books and I had to concede, that she did, indeed, have a great deal of medical knowledge!

Dr. Bynum was listed in the 1850 census (Cross Roads, Pitt County) as a "clerk" for his uncle John P. Bynum's merchant business, a vocation that would stick with him throughout his life.  Still, in only one census, the 1860 (Maysville PO), right after graduating medical school in Pennsylvania, he was listed as a "physician."  In the other two censuses in which he is recorded, however, the 1870 and 1900, he is listed as a "farmer."  This trend is also evident in the early generations of Dr. Alfred Franklin Hammond of Pollocksville, Jones County and the generation that followed him there (all three generations were named "Alfred Franklin!"). 

Most of the Dr. Bynum ledgers that are in the Kidd Collection at Laupus Library History Collections on ECU's medical campus  concern lumber mill sales and operations and the general merchandise available at Joseph and Richard Bynum's store.  Very few details describe his extensive medical career, except for one small section of a ledger, pages 35-56 and covering the period 1894-1895 and a medical diary covering the period 1897-1908.  

The account records show approximately 17 entries on each page, equaling 357 separate accounts and charges, mostly for "visits," some for "surgery," but most often, no doubt, for child birth.  This record covers July 1894 - April 1895, a small sample of the work he performed as a physician.   

Samples of these records include:

July 9   - Rufus Barrett
                   - To visit son & daughter 20/-
               Wm. Nichols (for daughter)
                   - To med daughter 5/-
July 11 - Rufus Barrett 
                   - to visit daughter and son - 15/-
                George C. Barrett
                   - to med wife 2/6
July 13 - Alfred May for son R
                   - To med son Robert 7/6
                George Lang
                   - To med wife and baby 5/-
                Rufus Barrett
                   - To visit daughter  15/-
July 14 - Mrs. Nancy Holloman
                   - To med self 15/-

Bynum noted on page 52, "John Dilday to day (Jun 24th 1895) paid me five dollars and gave me a due bill for five (5) dollars which settles the books of his account up to now."

The medical diary (LD 19.2.d) has much more detailed information about his patients and their concerns and activities.  He occasionally refers to consultations with Dr. David Morrill from the Farmville area, another of the four doctors which also included Dr. C. C. Joyner and Dr. Samuel Morrill.  

Some of the data can be personal and even though these people have passed on, their families may not appreciate them being advertised.   Also, much of this information may be covered by HIPAA regulations and cannot be made public as of yet.  

It appears that Dr. Bynum averaged about two patients per day, many of them repeat visits.  Almost all of them were simple visits, but there was the occasional surgery, to "open abscess," and "to LCC."  He operated on one man's son on November 8th, and checked on him the following four days, waited three days and checked again.  The numbers after the actions are probably money charged on their accounts.  Laudanum, or tincture of opium was generally administered in 10% solutions and was quite common in 1894/5. The occasional reference "To bot LCC 10/-" most likely referred to this pain killer/multi-purpose drug.  Laudanum was used to "relieve pain ... to produce sleep ... to allay irritation ... to check excessive secretions ... to support the system ... [and] as a soporific." It was widely prescribed for ailments from colds to meningitis to cardiac diseases, in both adults and children.  

Most of us are familiar with the prescription "Laudanum" to which Wyatt Earp's wife was addicted in the movie Tombstone, probably prescribed by the dubious contemporary of Dr. Bynum's, Doc Holliday.  Quite surprisingly, laudanum is still sometimes prescribed today.  As a kid, I even remember taking it for diarrhea... by its less innocuous name of Paregoric. Dr. Bynum also makes reference to this particular variety of camphorated tincture of opium. 

One of the advertisements in which Dr. J. N. Bynum was quoted was for Hayden's Viburnum Compound, used for "Ailments of Women."  And many of the visits recorded by Bynum were made out to local men or women with "to med wife" or "to visit with wife" or their children in the account.  Also, the records in the diary refer primarily to wives and daughters of local men.  So, it would appear that Dr. Bynum would have had a great deal of use for this particular prescription.

As for the Hayden's advertisement testimonial which included Bynum, it is shown below:

Also, testifying as to Dr. Bynum's work as a family physician, the The Pacific Record of Medicine and Surgery Vol II No 1 of 15 Oct 1887, p. 96 shows a comment of Dr. Bynum's about medicinal baby food:

  • I have now given Lactated Food a fair trial, and am prepared to say that it is superior to any food preparation I have ever used.  A decided advantage is that it is not rejected by the most delicate stomach, something that I cannot say of several other "Foods" that I have used.  A case of apparently hopeless marasmus [severe malnutrition] in an infant is now recovering under its use alone.  I consider it a boon to the bottle-fed baby.
What is apparent to me is that the discontinuous nature of the ledgers donated to the collections is largely responsible for the missing records of Dr. Bynum's service to his community.  The short records available for 1894 - 1895 shows that he "doctored" often, visiting with at least two or more patients each day.  Keep in mind that there were three other doctors in town by then.  The diary, while also an incomplete account, reveals much more information about Dr. Bynum and many of Farmville's local citizens.  Bynum received his degree in 1857, served in the Civil War as a doctor for the 44th NC Regiment, and remained in the area of the future railroad town of Farmville after "Marlboro" faded to become the southern part of the new town. 

Dr. Joseph Nicholas Bynum died 24 May 1909 in Farmville, Pitt County.  He was a man of letters, as the desk, bookcase, surveyor's compass, pocket watch, and "silverbead walking cane" in his will suggest.  The only note in his will that indicates his status as a doctor is his item bequeathing his "mycroscope and its fixtures" to his son Joseph... four pages of will to end the quiet farm and community life of an old country doctor.  How many of his babies went on to lead prosperous lives, create wonders?  How many of their grandchildren remember hearing the story of how they were born at his hands?  

If you want to learn more about the Bynums and many other families from this area of Pitt and Wilson Counties, go to: Tabitha Marie DeVisconti Papers, 1705-1983 at the Joyner Library Special Collections on the main campus. Also, check out the May Museum at 3802 S. Main Street, Farmville, NC 2782,Phone: 252-753-6725...

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