A Story of His Life By a Man Who Has Never Gotten Anywhere: Robert Lincoln Watkins, M.D., 1863-1934. A Self-Inoculating Doc Goes to Paris.


A doctor’s studying, especially in those days, was not finished when he hung up his shingle. Private courses, and dispensary work if one could get it, were in vogue. Post-graduate and Polyclinic and laboratory courses were in my line of interest, and I started them all. Besides, it gives prestige to be connected with such work, and to take it up afternoons while the patients are so often many years making up their minds to give the young fledgling a call.

[Background: here’s the preface, forward, and notes from the editor of R.L.W.’s memoir, here’s his account of his upbringing through medical school, and here’s a piece I wrote for New York Press upon first reading it.]

The germ theory of disease was at that time getting under full swing. It was being asserted by the professors that a germ would soon be found as the cause of every disease, and thus its cure would be found. The tubercle bacillus had been assigned the unassailable role of cause of tuberculosis. I could never see this, as I had beliefs learned from those I considered more capable than any French or German physician, an American physician at that.

But the facts were against me, although I did the most foolish thing of my whole life: I inoculated myself with the pure cultured tubercle bacillus. Only if I had died would the profession have believed that I did the experiment. To this day I and many others, except those who have been educated and axiomated to it, do not take stock in this germ, T.B. as it is called, i. e., do not believe this is the cause, but rather the result, of degenerated tissue. And it will not be many years before all the profession will believe this.

Practice was slow I’m coming to me. But the above experiment, getting late into the papers, caused a furor, and much worry, and innumerable letters from people both rich and poor. But to me it did harm, for I had started as an investigator, and was “kicking against the pricks.”


Some years after, I conceived the idea of going to Europe to see what was known about the blood over there. I had saved up a few hundred dollars and was waiting for the chance to go. One day a classmate by the name of [Robert Frederick] Brodnax, who had practiced a short time in the West and had come to town to try his luck, walked into my office. He had been unable to get along here in New York so far, and I said, “B., you are good and quick at making acquaintances, far better than I. Suppose we go to Europe.”

My thought was that together we could accomplish more because of his medical ability and those already-mentioned endowments. And I could save money and time and do things more thoroughly. He replied, “I will go if we have steerage.” So I bought the tickets, over and back so we would not be stranded entirely.

B., it turned out, was a pretty wild boy. I had only known him casually as a classmate. I learned afterward he gambled all the way over, but he became acquainted with everybody on the boat. He used to tell me, “I am not afraid to accost anybody, even Grover Cleveland if he were on the boat. I consider no one better than myself except he be able to show me that he knows more.”

He came to me one day with a passenger list and pointed out that he was listed “Rev. T. Brodnax.” “How do you suppose they made that mistake?” he said. I knew he was thick with a newly married minister on board, and afterward learned from his conversation that his parents had sent him to an Episcopal Seminary where he stayed a short time. Putting things together, I concluded that he had suggested the “Rev.” to the printer on board who made the list.

He was engaged to a wealthy girl here, one of the MacAllister 400. He used to read to me, on board the ship, love letters from her. This kept him I know pretty straight all the time, even in Paris. After we got home, however, the girl found him out and jilted him – for at that time, it seems, she did not know him any better than I did.

We landed in Plymouth on the morning of the 14th of July, anniversary of the fall of the Bastille at Paris, our destination. The first thing we picked up to read was the Paris edition of the New York Herald, owned by Bennett, of course, who lived in Paris because of a well-known scandal.

Here, we noted that the American Chamber of Commerce was to give a dinner that night. I said, “Here is our chance to get acquainted quick with someone who may be able to tell us where we can get our start on the subject we are looking into, and maybe influence as well.” For we practically knew no one. I said, “We can’t both afford it. You get a dress suit and go.” We went to a tailor, hired a suit, and got everything but some shirt studs, which it was too late to find by the time we got ready. He said, “That’s all right, Doc. A Virginian can go any old way. I’ll take a chance.”

It was 2 o’clock in the morning when he jumped into bed at the Hotel St. Petersburg, where we had registered. And he was feeling good from the champagne he had imbibed. He told me his whole life history, especially the part when he was out West, and showed me two bullets – which he made me feel – which were still in his hip joint. He said he fell into a business in Seattle as soon as he got there, soon after graduating – married a Spanish woman and got into a fight with her lover, etc.

At the dinner that night, he flirted with a countess across the table, got acquainted with her, and it was her carriage that brought him back to the hotel – Countess de Cluny, or some such name. She had asked h8m to call the next day, and instructed him (because he was an American and would not know, she said) that when he came to her home he must wear evening dress. I don’t think he went, because we were not very many times on our short trip.

A dentist gave me the privilege of his magnificent offices on the Avenue de l’Opera to demonstrate my work with blood with lantern slides and stereopticon, a case for which my father had made for me – heavy, but compact. This, with a grip, constituted our only baggage on the trip.

No one showed up, although I had sent out many invitations to professional men. Not one of the men invited became known to me through my friend Dr. B., whose expenses I had paid for this very purpose. He was a good mixer, but with the wrong people.

A curious thing happened to me at the dentist’s, as I was rigging up my camera and arranging the negatives. A clear voice out of nowhere said to me, “You have been here and done that before.” As I write, something comes to mind about the heavy black box in which all of my paraphernalia was stored. When the deckhand hauled it out of the hold at Plymouth, I handed him a silver dollar – and very few tips did we give. He threw it down on the deck as if it was not enough. So I picked up the coin and put it in my pocket, and B. and I lugged the box ourselves off the boat.

The next day we took rooms down in the Latin Quarter near the Odean, where we paid a few francs a week for a small dark room. Being exhausted, I laid on the bed and slept for I should say about ten minutes – and astonishing as it may seem, when I awoke, my weakness and tired discouragement had vanished.

Soon after this, B. and I were strolling in the Park and I suddenly sprung what had been in mind. “B.,” I said, “we have been over here three weeks. You have done nothing but loaf around music halls and talk nice about things. You have helped out in nothing whatsoever.” He immediately pulled a gun out of his pocket as if to shoot me, but I quickly said, “Look here, B.” – at the time taking from my pocket a letter – “I wrote to Balabanoff in Seattle before we started, and he told me not to come over here with you. Read that,” handing him the letter.

In the letter, Dr. [Ivan Petroff] Balabanoff had said that if Brodnax ever came to town the police would get him, etc. Balabanoff was a classmate, a Bulgarian who had started out as a missionary, but married an American woman, also a doctor, and instead of going back to his own country had gone to Seattle, where he was much respected, and became an American citizen.

Immediately after reading the letter, B. put up his gun, shook my hand, and said, “Balabanoff is right. I’ll go back on the next boat.” For as he knew, I was about to tell him to go back home when he surprised me with the gun, which I did not know he carried. I gave him his ticket and $5.00. He said that would do.

It was two or three years after I got back to New York that I saw him again. He came from a well-known family in the South, had the delightful southern accent which the women especially like to hear, could play the violin somewhat, was tall, thin, and angular. He often used to boast, “I’m a homely cuss, but I can get on the right side of any woman, and size her up accurately, as quick or quicker than any other man.” He at the time was friendly with such men as Drs. Polk, Loomis, Stimson, and Roger Pryor and all the other southern dignitaries in New York.

Previous to his visit to my office after my return, he had been sick, and had married the nurse that took care of him. But this day he came in he said, “Dr. Fox says I have a hard chancre – syphilis, primary – look me over and see what you think.” I did so and replied that Dr. Fox was right. “Well,” he replied, “I’m going to wait the 45 days for the eruption,” and left. Forty-five days was the old way – “you know dead sure you got it” if the copper-colored eruption appears.

It seems he had gone into the quack business. He was “old Dr. Williams” on 34th St., and then “old Dr. Gary” or “Grandin” farther downtown. He used to take valuable trinkets, jewelry, and watches as pay for treating susceptible people who answered his newspaper ads for the treatment of venereal troubles.

The last time I saw him was on the corner of Broadway and 34th St. He was crossing with a fine looking woman whom he introduced to me as his wife. I said, “I thought you married a nurse.” He replied, “Oh, that was no marriage, she was an octoroon. I practice medicine in the winter, and go to Paris in the summer.” He then pulled up his sleeve, showed me the syphilitic eruption, and said, “You were right, Doc, I’m taking two grains of mercury a day.” And he went on. I never saw him again, but understand he gave the disease to his wife and both died in the insane asylum.

23 thoughts on “A Story of His Life By a Man Who Has Never Gotten Anywhere: Robert Lincoln Watkins, M.D., 1863-1934. A Self-Inoculating Doc Goes to Paris.

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