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Herald Journal Publishing
PO Box 129
Winsted, MN 55395
(320) 485-2535

published July 2010

Recalling the era of small town family doctors

Throughout history, area doctors have had a special relationship with their patients providing one-on-one care around the clock, oftentimes right in one’s home. Each doctor has their own story and their own style of practice that have left an impression within their community. These are a collection of those stories of doctors who have served around the area.

Dr. O. L. Peterson, Cokato, MN

By Kristen Miller, Enterprise Dispatch Editor

Known as the most well-respected physician to ever work in Cokato, Dr. O. L. (Olaus) Peterson practiced medicine in Cokato for more than 40 years.

“He was the most kind,” remembers Audrey Tack, Cokato Museum assistant and former patient.

Peterson was born April 15, 1872, in Collinwood Township.

He graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College in 1894, and taught school around the Cokato area to help finance medical school.

In 1905, he graduated from the University of Minnesota’s school of medicine, and interned for two years at Bethesda hospital in St. Paul.

Then, in 1907, he moved to Lindstrom to practice medicine for two years there and married his wife, Matilda Johnson.

They moved to Cokato, where he remained until 1914, when they moved to Lafayette, only to return to Cokato in 1917.

During his life, Peterson did many things, including serving four terms as mayor.

He is also said to have delivered more than 300 babies during his career, including Tack and her four sisters.

He was a soft-spoken man, she said, and “he always knew what family you belonged to.”

Dr. Peterson’s office was above the current Enterprise Dispatch office in downtown Cokato, but he also made house calls.

Tack remembers Peterson taking her sister’s tonsils out in the family’s kitchen.

She also remembered when Peterson quarantined her house for scarlet fever in 1936, after her sister was diagnosed with it.

Along with being mayor, Peterson also served on the board of education for the Cokato school district for 12 years, was a deacon at Cokato Lutheran Church, president of the H. C. Bull Memorial Library board, director of the State Bank of Cokato, and president of the Lions Club.

Peterson was honored by the community at a birthday gathering Dec. 29, 1950, at the Cokato school auditorium.

During the event, Rev. J Millard Ahlstrom, a family friend to the Petersons, spoke of the doctor by saying he always had the best interest of mankind at heart, according to the Cokato Enterprise.

“He has always been the kind of man who could be depended upon to stand on the right side of every moral issue,” Ahlstrom said.

Peterson died four years later, at the age of 81.

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Dr. William L. Diggins, Winsted, MN

By Linda Scherer, Staff Writer

Dr. William L. Diggins and his wife, Lois, a registered nurse, moved to Winsted in 1978, from Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. They opened an office for the practice of general medicine in the Medical Office Building on the north side of St. Mary’s Hospital, and continued to see patients there until 1983.

During his time in Winsted, Diggins earned a reputation for treating everyone with respect and compassion, as indicated by his former staff. He was known by his patients as Dr. Bill, never wore a white coat because he believed it frightened children, and always had his telephone number listed in the phone book for his patients’ easy reference.

Diggins remembers those years in Winsted as being, “very enjoyable.”

“I had an excellent office staff, with my wife managing the office and coming with me to see patients after hours, and the hospital nurses were excellent, too,” Diggins said. “I was able to develop a considerable surgical practice and had first-class itinerant surgeons helping with major operations.”

Office hours began on time each day in the Winsted office, with scheduled appointments, but by lunch time, Maggie Corr of Annandale remembers always running a little late.

Corr, who was a registered nurse for Diggins, said it was because of the amount of time Diggins would take with each patient.

“It was a good thing we had an hour for lunch because most of the time, it was 12:45 before the morning appointments were complete,” Corr said. “It gave us only 15 minutes for a break, but we could start the afternoon appointments on time.” Corr said.

Through the delivery of Corr’s two children, Sam and Molly, and working with Diggins at the office, she was able to see first-hand how dedicated he was to his patients.

One patient Corr recalls was an older farmer from Silver Lake who was having medical issues with his foot, complicated by diabetes. He was short of money and was finding it difficult to pay his doctor bill.

“Dr. Diggins told him he had to see him in two weeks and told him he didn’t care if he didn’t have any money, he had to come in or he would lose his foot,” Corr said.

When the farmer showed up for his appointment, he brought three dressed ducks, according to Corr. Then, every time after that, the farmer would bring fresh vegetables as payment for his doctor visits, which Diggins shared with the entire office.

“We all had lots of fresh vegetables for the rest of the summer,” Corr said.

The story about the farmer had a happy ending, too. “Dr. Diggins saved his foot,” Corr said. “When I first saw it (the foot), I didn’t believe he could. I thought for sure it would have to be amputated,” Corr said.

Diggins was also an excellent surgeon, which was proven when a man was brought in from Dura Supreme in Howard Lake because his hand was injured by sanding equipment.

“They brought him to Winsted, and Diggins had to work on the hand before sending him to another hospital,” Corr said. “We worked on it (his hand) for hours and hours before we could even send him to the hospital in the city.”

“Later, the surgeon from the metropolitan area hospital where the man was sent called and told Dr. Diggins that he had done an excellent job and he was the reason the man was able to keep his hand,” Corr said.

Marilyn Gatz of Winsted worked full time in the office as Diggins’ secretary and bookkeeper from 1979 to 1983. She welcomed the opportunity to share her memories about her time working with both Diggins and Lois.

“Dr. Diggins had extreme empathy for everyone,” Gatz said. “from the babies to the old and infirm.”

Gatz described Diggins as the type of doctor who would start the appointment by coming in and just sitting down across from his patient, giving them all of his attention.

“Many times he could look at you and tell what was wrong with you. He had a real gift that way,” Gatz said. “He wasn’t one to send you over to the hospital to take a million x-rays or blood tests. He would rule out things before he would call for x-rays.”

Gatz remembered a woman who had come in to see Diggins because she was having terrible headaches.

“She told me later, Dr. Diggins looked at her hands and said, ‘you know your fingernails are white? You are anemic.’” Following a blood transfusion, she was alright and the headaches went away, Gatz said.

Diagnostics was a skill that Diggins was particularly proud of.

“My teachers taught me that a good medical history and a thorough physical examination will diagnose 95 percent of illnesses, and I believe this sincerely. I deplore the present process of a brief history, minimal exam, and referral for expensive tests and x-rays,” Diggins said from his home in Harlingen, TX, where he has been living since leaving Winsted 27 years ago.

It was during high school that Diggins made the decision to become a doctor. He was only 14 years old when his father died, at the age of 56.

“I felt that I needed to learn how to prevent such early deaths and treat people better than they were being treated then,” Diggins said.

Educated at McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Diggins received a bachelor of science degree in 1954, and in 1958, received an MDCM degree, which stands for Doctor of Medicine Master of Surgery in Latin. McGill is one of only two universities that grant this degree.

Diggins was a first-generation Canadian, born in Thunder Bay, and had been a physician there for about 15 years before moving to Winsted. He and his wife still have a cottage on Lake Superior, where they spend their summers.

“I moved to Winsted because I could not tolerate socialized medicine in Canada,” Diggins said.

Would he recommend medicine as a career today?

“It’s a different way of life today, and general practitioners like myself are being trained differently and are restricted in what procedures they may do. Most now do no deliveries, no surgery, no hospital practice, and have loads of paperwork. My worst fear is ‘Obamacare.’

Following the graduation of their youngest son from Howard Lake in 1983, the family made the decision to move south, to Harlingen, TX, for the warmer winters.

“I practiced in Harlingen, TX for 20 years. It’s a major medical center with full services in every specialty, and I enjoyed working closely with many very highly skilled doctors. I treated many Canadians and Minnesotans who come here for the winters,” Diggins said. “Winter Texans,” he called them.

Diggins has been retired since 2001.

Dr. John Smyth, Lester Prairie, MN

By Starrla Cray, Staff Writer

John J. Smyth, MD, was a doctor who people in Lester Prairie knew they could count on.

“He was a person of integrity and honesty,” John’s son, Peter, said.

John passed away in 1982, at the age of 64, but not before leaving a lasting legacy.

He established a medical practice in Lester Prairie Sept. 1, 1948, in the Sheppard Dental building. The previous doctor, JB Clement, was retiring at that time.

“Dr. Clement had been in Lester Prairie for 50 years, from 1898 to 1948,” Peter said.

Before Clement left, he gave John a few antique medical instruments and bottles – the start to John’s lifelong collection.

“He had them sitting around his office, like knickknacks in a house,” Peter said.

After John passed away, some of the antiques were given to family members, while others went to history of medicine museums at the Mayo Clinic and at the University of Minnesota.

After his first 10 years in Lester Prairie, John built his own medical building at 28 Hickory Street, where he practiced until his retirement. John was also associated with Glencoe Municipal Hospital, Hutchinson Community Hospital, and St. Mary’s Hospital in Winsted.

John, who grew up in Fort Dodge, IA, made his home in Lester Prairie because he thought it was a good place to make a living and raise a family. John and his wife, Dorothy, had seven children: Peter, Kathleen, Kristine, Anthony (died at birth), Michael, Molly, and Colleen.

The family attended Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Winsted, and Peter and his siblings graduated from Holy Trinity High School.

Dorothy currently resides at St. Mary’s Care Center in Winsted.

Peter also stayed in the area, and is a doctor for Glencoe Regional Health Services. He joined the medical clinic in 1978, after completing a residency in internal medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, and after serving in the US Navy.

John also served in the Navy, and had been stationed in Missouri and California from 1946 to 1948.

“We sort of worked together until he retired,” Peter said. Glencoe Regional Health Services took over the Lester Prairie clinic in 1978, and a new building was constructed in Lester Prairie about five years ago.

John had many interesting experiences as a small town doctor.

“He made house calls, took care of fractures, and he even fit glasses,” Peter said. “He also did more basic surgeries like appendectomies and hernias.”

John also would deliver babies, and sometimes had to perform Caesarean sections.

“He really enjoyed obstetrics,” Peter said.

Despite a growing medical practice, John always made time for his wife and children.

“He was very conscious of his family,” Peter said.

If someone needed time off, it was arranged amongst all the doctors in the area.

“The doctors in the neighboring towns would get together to help each other out for vacations,” Peter said. “It was actually pretty efficient, but not as formal.”

John was active in the community, serving on the PTA, Lester Prairie Lions Club, sportsmen’s club, civic and commerce association, Knights of Columbus, and the American Legion, among other organizations.

According to the Lester Prairie history book from 1986, “he was a true patriot and always willing to discuss ways to improve our country constructively and conservatively.”

Dr. Rok Shin, Howard Lake, MN

By Lynda Jensen

In Howard Lake, many may remember the late Dr. Shin, who did everything from delivering babies to acting as coroner in the area.

“He was always there when you needed him,” commented Alvina Fiecke, who worked with Dr. Shin as head nurse at the time.

Dr. Shin opened his Howard Lake office in 1960, which is the modern-day Eden Medical building between the bank and the grocery store. During that time, he served as a doctor at St. Mary’s Hospital in Winsted.

Dr. Shin, who is originally from Korea, served thousands of patients for nearly four decades, until a heart attack ended his career in 2001, at the age of 74.

Dr. Dave Philp, Watertown, MN

By Starrla Cray, Staff Writer

From performing surgeries to delivering babies, Dave Philp of Watertown had a wide range of experiences as a family practice doctor.

“Family practice included a lot of things back in the 1950s,” he said.

Philp opened his private practice in Watertown in December 1954, but his service extended far beyond the walls of the clinic.

“We made home calls,” he said. “If they couldn’t come in, we went to them. It was a real joy to do that.”

Day or night, “Doc Philp” was ready to help the people in Watertown and the surrounding communities.

“We were covering a large part of the county around here,” he said.

“Dave was on call 24 hours a day for years and years,” said his wife, Char. “One Christmas eve, he delivered a set of triplets to a family in Delano.”

Another memorable delivery was during the winter of 1965.

“I delivered a baby in a snowstorm,” Philp said. “I went in by snowmobile because I couldn’t get in by car.”

Philp also performed gallbladder, hernia, and tonsil surgeries, but as time went on, specialized doctors took over those procedures.

Philp’s interest in the medical field started at a young age.

“I always wanted to be a doctor,” he said. “My father was a veterinarian, and I was going to do that.”

He decided to take a different route, however, and joined the V-12 program in the Navy.

“I was in the medical unit,” he said.

He took an accelerated medical school program in Kentucky, graduating in 1948, at age 24.

He met his wife, Char, while interning at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis.

“I was working in the pediatric department as a nurse,” Char said.

Before coming to Watertown, Philp practiced in Windom for three years. He also practiced in Korea for a year-and-a-half during WWII.

Philp and Char came to Watertown because they wanted to be closer to the Twin Cities. Char grew up in Minneapolis, and Philp’s hometown is Mankato.

Philp, who retired in 1997, said he enjoyed his years as a doctor in Watertown.

“It was really great,” he said. “Medicine definitely changed, but as it did, it changed for the benefit of the patient.”

David W. Maher, D.P.M. serves Cokato, Hutchinson, Dassel, and Litchfield
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