A Story of His Life By a Man Who Has Never Gotten Anywhere: Robert Lincoln Watkins, M.D., 1863-1934. A Young Doc in New York Survives Self-Publishing While Treating a Spree-Loving Bon Vivant.

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I had a book in mind for some time, and it was only because the book didn’t accomplish anything like what I thought, i.e., arouse interest by the profession, that I thought of constructing elaborate machinery, apparatus, etc., in addition. Up to the time of making the Migraf, which I considered a perfect machine, I had made 20 or 30 toy machines.

I was very lucky in having a patient, Mr. E. W. Clausing, who was of a mechanical turn of mind and had a small machine and carpenter shop in the cellar of his house. Here, both of us worked at odd spells. One day when he moved to smaller quarters we had to get rid of the junk he built for me. We put it in a heap before destroying it and made in interesting photograph.

This genius of a baker, carver, and mechanic came from a baron’s family in Germany. He never made over $13 a week in his life, but brought up a family of five children, and with the skill of his wife was able to clothe and feed them till they grew up, and did much better in a financial way than he ever would have dreamed possible.

She was one of those even-tempered women, and a better match I never saw. He used to relate how she was a governess in a family. They had had some words, and separated, but one day he was in a barber shop getting shaved and spied her on the sidewalk with a a baby-carriage. With the lather all over his face he left the chair, ran out, made up, and gave her a kiss on the spot. They were my first patients, and one of his daughters, now a widow after being twice married, is the hack writer on this book.

[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;  here’s when he self-inoculated with tuberculosis and went off to Paris with a charlatan; here’s where he  treated typhoid, learned to dance, theorized, and sutured guinea pigs together; here’s where he contracts cholera and hooks his uncle up with testicular juice; and here’s a piece I wrote for New York Press upon first reading the memoir.]

One time his boy, 19 years old had a fit of refusing to work. For some years he was stubborn. Some of the sons-in-law and I were thinking of shanghaiing him, for he would sleep all day and loaf about at night. But on consulting the father we decided not to ship the boy out because he said the mother would cry all night, and never stop.

All the family stuck to their mother, ever after getting husbands. This boy, after five years or so, finally put out by his sister for not working, obtained a job and today has a most responsible position in Jersey City and made good in every respect. He was even at one time a saloon keeper, and on the police force.

But to come back to my subject, my mind was always on the idea of driving my views down the throats of the profession whether they wanted them or not. I was wrong, but young and stubborn.

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I got a well-known New York published interested in the book I was writing, and as the manuscript was gathered over a space of 4 or 5 years, would submit it to him, one of our good Methodist brothers. He had published in his Annual a description of my bullet probe, and a medical article on the blood which I afterwards felt was not quite accurate.

So the manuscript of the whole book was one day submitted to him in typewritten form, ship-shape, according to Hoyle, with 160 plates gathered during the whole of practice, 10 years perhaps.

It would be the first book on the subject according to my plans, but fate was against me. For after a limited time the manuscript was returned, neatly done up, with the common note, “sorry but we cannot publish the book.”

It was the first real shock that I remember having up to that time. So I went to work to arrange for the publication myself. A publisher of a medical work, and probably others, pays only 10% as a rule, if the author is well-known, to the author. And if he is not well-known, the author has to pay him a good bunch of money to produce the book. In fact, there are all kinds of contracts, but the publisher never loses.

I went to see Paul DuChaillu, author of The Land of the Midnight Sun, at this time, and he said that contrary to the experience of so many, when he submitted his book to the publisher (Harper & Brothers) they published it right away with no comment, and it took well.

After that, I was author, proof reader, printer, and publisher. Having obtained the New York Herald as printer, and secured the services of a reporter and friend as hack-writer and aid, in time the book was printed, 1,000 copies. Then the book-binders, a separate business (and pay in advance, for me anyway, as I had no credit, not being in business), get ten cents a piece for the bindings. No sooner was the binding done than the demand was made to come and get the books or we will dump them out.

One going to the bindery, another surprise was in store for me. There was a  wagon-load of books. What was I to do with them? I had not thought of that.

There was no room in my office, and room in New York costs money. A friend in the electro-therapeutic line was in time thought of, and an arrangement was made with him to store the books in a loft that he happened to have, and to help sell, wrap in paper, and deliver the same for 4 cents a piece.

He had ideas that helped me out, for we decided toggle a certain number of them as an advertisement to libraries throughout the United States if they paid the express charges, for if the books came back the expense would be doubled. This we did by consulting a library directory.

I recollect one we sent to a town up in the Rocky Mountains. Word came back, as the directory was occasionally wrong, that there was no library there. We went word, give it to the doctor in town. No doctor in town, came the reply. Give it to the minister, we wrote. No minister in town, was the answer. We then said to the express agent there, take it yourself and pay the express. We never heard any more about it.

Previously we had advertised in medical journals both here and abroad that advance orders would be delivered for two dollars; the book sold for $5.00. From these notices we received many orders, especially from England.

After a year or more we succeeded in disposing of the whole lot, and even after 10 years would occasionally receive an order. Some even went to China, and one to the island of Malta.

I often thought if a real publisher had only handled it how it would have sold. As it was, while they were all sold, there was no profit. On account of the delay of two or three months, a Boston man, writing a book about the same subject but from a different standpoint, and having a regular publisher, got in ahead of me. The first in the field of a subject or thing in demand, generally does best, financially speaking.

Some time before this, when I was getting together material  for a book on diseases of the chest (heart) while I was assistant to the late Dr. Katzenback in the Polyclinic, a middle-aged, well-dressed, fine-looking man with an equally good-looking young lady came in, apparently needing prompt attention.

The lady said, “He has been intoxicated, is now under the influence of a narcotic (chloral), and was going to shoot himself,” producing the pistol. I gave them prompt attention, and seeing that they were not accustomed to going to dispensaries, directed them to my office.

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His name was A. A. Brook, and the lady claimed to be his niece. It turned out that he had recently been (or was) a prominent lawyer in Washington, had served in the Civil War as confidential messenger to the various chiefs of staff, and was afterward Assistant Treasurer of the U.S. under President Grant. On some of the old one-dollar bill his name could be found.

But he had periodical sprees, and on one of these he ran away to New York with a woman, a demi-mondaine, and her maid. This one he called his niece. When he spent, or when she got, all his money, the woman left him, but the maid stuck. She liked him, she said, and was sorry for the man, for one of his education and qualities – tall, dark, with black curly hair (I have his picture today), erect, and always, drunk or sober, well-dressed. I never saw him stagger, although he would drink a whole glass of whiskey straight when on a bout.

He went on a spree almost regularly every three months, except one period of two years that I recollect when he and the maid joined the Catholic church. The girl obtained a position as cashier in Child’s Restaurant at 130th and Broadway, and supported him much of the time. She was there in the restaurant for years.

He often would say, “When I get rich I’m going to build you a laboratory” – and do many other things for me he knew I talked about, for I had looked after him much, and showed him the picture of a building which I paid an architect $25 to plan for me. (Under this paper institution I afterward wrote, “A dream that never came true.”)

Through his Wall Street connections, for he loved to play the market, he obtained a position as a kind of private secretary to a man of wealth. I accidentally learned that once or twice he would receive extra checks of from $2,000 to $5,000. Then he would buy fine new clothes for the two of them, and I would not see him for some time. Neither did I receive much, if any, compensation for services rendered to him, but he would always pay me for services rendered to her.

He used to put his employer’s yacht in commission every year, take his family to the theatres or opera, keep track of his and his maiden sister’s accounts, and advise them in legal matters.

One day his employer was taken with paralysis, but later recovered all his faculties except that of speech. My friend certainly had a position of responsibility then, for he alone knew all his employer’s affairs.

Still, the sprees kept up. But the family were accustomed to him and could find no substitute, to would seem. Or else he kept things so tied up that they couldn’t. They were afraid to employ me as a physician, I suppose because they thought I might be in league with him.

We could most always tell when he was getting ready to go on his spree, for he would get very religious, and so would have an excuse to take some wine, which he claimed was harmless. I have seen him so wild with drink in his little two-roomed flat that he would throw bottles all about, and at the maid. But she never flinched, nor left him.

He would generally wind up so bad that we would send him to the hospital. If he couldn’t walk it, he would only go in a taxi, never in an ambulance. St. Vincent’s was the favorite place. They seemed to treat him better, and he recovered quicker there. Paraldehyde was their favorite remedy. He claimed he met there at one time an ex-president of the U.S. in the same predicament.

Once or twice he got into Bellevue by accident, when all places were crowded and he had to be taken somewhere. At those times, by luck, I was not at hand. He used to say, “Bellevue is awful, they give me morphine, Doc. Never give a drunken man morphine, it makes him crazy. It’s awful.”

One day his employer called me to his office to take him home. We had to cross 5th Avenue. He was well-dressed and had on a silk hat; he could walk, but he was terrible. He insisted on accosting every lady, very gentlemanly, just, “How do you do.” And then looking for every saloon we passed.

The girl could handle him pretty well up to a certain point. This day when I got him home she took care of him and sobered him up. And she stuck to him till she had more grey hair than he did.

I understand he lived to be 75, and died in the place he dreaded, Bellevue Hospital. The girl stuck with him to the end, finally working her way up till she was a private secretary in a big insurance company.

But before they parted, she acquired the old disease that most all of that class sooner or later get, that so often contagious affection that is seldom wiped out of the system, and is passed on if opportunity presents to the next generation.

15 thoughts on “A Story of His Life By a Man Who Has Never Gotten Anywhere: Robert Lincoln Watkins, M.D., 1863-1934. A Young Doc in New York Survives Self-Publishing While Treating a Spree-Loving Bon Vivant.

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