Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Old Country Doctor

While passing through Chazy recently I saw something that caused my thoughts to turn to a dwindling breed of individual. I'd passed the Riverview Cemetery and had spotted a large headstone with the name FAIRBANK carved in the face. I was moved to research Dr. Alexander Fairbank and found he had served the community of Chazy as a family physician for many generations - beginning to do so directly upon graduation in 1874 from Albany Medical College. Not only did Dr. Fairbank care for and heal many of his neighbors, he also helped inspire at least one youngster, George W. Clark III, to pursue the medical arts.

A young George Warren with his father George Clark II, ca. 1930

George W. Clark III was the son of a rural mail carrier and a school teacher, but he had dreamed from an early age of becoming a doctor. George Warren (as they called him in his youth - probably to distinguish him from his father and grandfather) wrote an essay in his last year of high school about his desire to become a doctor. Even as a teen he knew about the different disciplines from which a medical student could choose. He knew he could make more money as a surgeon or specialist, but George Warren wanted to help his community by becoming a Country Doctor like Alexander Fairbank. In the essay about his future he states that he chose this profession "long before" he entered high school.

After graduating from Chazy Central Rural School in 1938 he went on to Union College in Albany, eventually transferring to McGill University to study medicine. In college he began signing his name as George W. Clark. His father had passed away years before and George was now becoming a man.

He did very well in college, all the while keeping in close touch with the Chazy community and his mother Harriet. There were likely influences other than Dr. Fairbank that inspired the young George Warren to become a family doctor. After all, he had lost his father to an un-named illness when he was just a teen. But what young person in a small town does not dream of being admired by all? In his high school essay George Warren states, "In our own town Dr. Fairbank will always be remembered as a good citizen; always helping, always encouraging, always working for the good of the town."

Dr. Alexander Fairbank was an admirable citizen - aside from serving as healer, Dr. Fairbank did much for his community. In Nell Sullivan's A History of the Town of Chazy, she says he "contributed to the success of many organizations in Chazy, including the school and the library." Young George Warren Clark wanted to be admired, and he really wanted to help his neighbors.

George Warren with his mother Harriet McDowell Clark, ca. 1933

These days it is becoming more and more difficult to convince medical students to study family medicine. With huge debt accruing, most choose more lucrative specialities like surgery, oncology, or dentistry, etc. One study asserts that only twenty percent of medical students choose to enter into family medicine. Chazy itself is no longer home to a practice specializing in family medicine. This is true of many communities.

Whether in his little office, or through the virtually lost act of making house calls, Dr. George W. Clark was, for the time being, the last of the breed of community servants who healed generations of Chazy families through a general family practice. Let us hope others come along to revive this legacy. Hail to Dr. Clark and Dr. Fairbank!

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