A Story of His Life By a Man Who Has Never Gotten Anywhere: Robert Lincoln Watkins, M.D., 1863-1934. The Doc Talks Syphilis, Polio, Avoiding Impositions, and the Nature of Success.


I had been treating for three or four years a man named Clinton, for syphilis. He was engaged to be married to a girl of his choice with whom he had become acquainted when a college student and was traveling about the country with his baseball team.

He acquired the disease in the usual manner, when on a political spree, had given it to the girl he loved and was going to marry, and I must cure her without her knowing what was the matter. I did.

He so handled the girl that, as far as I could tell, she never knew what she was being treated for.

They got married, but he seemed to be unable to make a living as lawyer in his small town of Menton, although he was a popular young man. He served in the legislature, and his father was sick of supporting him and the young lady, whom his mother was not particularly fond of because of her agnostic views and those of her family.

One day, Clinton came to my office, saying his wife had seen an ad in the town paper that an accountant, able to speak Spanish, was wanted immediately to go to Mexico and engage in the mining business. He came down for an interview to try his luck, though he was not able to speak Spanish.

He was a tall, curly-headed boy, six feet and over, and to make a shortcut story, he got the position immediately. He and his wife learned enough of the language on the way down to convince his employers.

Inside of ten years, he had made a fortune in land deals, for he was not long an accountant, but was constructing railroads, and became president of the company.

After being there a few years, the climate did not agree with him. He became suddenly sick and laid it to his old disease. But such was not the case, for in the meantime they had had a couple of healthy children, and no evidence could be found in the blood of either.

My experience has been that if the patient properly handles himself under the advice of the physician, the disease is easily curable, or kept under control, so that no one need fear it as is commonly believed.

If one member of a couple has this disease, by continual cohabiting the other is bound sooner or later to acquire it, and without manifesting any outward symptoms. Then it may remain in the system dormant, or break out symptomatically and suddenly as a skin eruption, or nervous, paralytic, or other of its various forms.

Some claim that birth control should be practiced in such cases – i.e., where there is syphilis in the parent or parents. I do not advocate birth control under any of the usual excuses, because looked at from a philosophical point of view, souls innumerable are waiting to be born. They have got to be born, and though they may be cripples, they must get through the world. Parents should take these responsibilities, or else never get married.

[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; here’s his misadventures in self-publishing while treating a slow-motion suicide-by-drinking; here’s where he hangs out with a magician and a vaudevillian; here’s where he recounts his singing career; here’s his ode to a Fulton Market butcher; here’s where he explains his profound love of music; here’s an account of a hard-partying man named Emrich; here are his escapades with a reporter take him to Carnegie’s house; here’s where he gets rooked by a crook of a partner; here’s where he loses his shirt working on an invention for 15 years; here’s where he travels south during the World War and becomes a DuPont physician who’s present for a mass industrial accident; here’s his description of complications involving his patients and practice; and here’s a piece I wrote for New York Press upon first reading the memoir.]

A few years ago there was an epidemic of infantile paralysis (poliomyelitis). Children, and some grown people, were seized with this dread disease, and many either died or remained paralyzed. The writer was assigned to a few cases connected with a church. His idea here, as in other diseases, was to first study, then work on, the blood. Out of 15 or 20 cases examined and treated according to analysis, only two remained paralyzed.

The writer visited clinics, the Willard Parker Hospital among them, where many cases were isolated and where they also worked chemically on the blood, but from a different standpoint. In this hospital, they used blood injections prepared from the blood-serum, and many other institutions and laboratories experimented along the same lines.

I recollect very well the night the reports were brought before the profession at the County Medical Society. These reports were so complicated and technical that it was difficult to understand their modus operandi, but the conclusions indicated that nothing definite was found out. And there was no hope for positive cures, or improvement in methods of treatment.

It was quite a relief when an old grey-haired practitioner took the floor and calmly said that he had experienced no special difficulty in the uncomplicated cases he ran across, not only during this epidemic, but throughout his 40 years of practice on the East Side.

He gave them a dose of castor oil in the early stages, and they recovered. So in my work, while I saw mucus and fermentation products in the bloodstream (naturally drawn), it was mainly through taking care of the bowels, with hygienic feeding of course very important, and the use of eucalyptus, menthol, peppermint, etc., that the children under my care recovered.

I recollect one little boy, 10 years old, who was sent to the hospital, and we could not get him out. The authorities insisted on retaining him, all huddled up among many others who could not be attended to properly. This boy’s legs remained paralyzed, and in addition, as soon as he was out, he contracted pneumonia.

Then the writer was sent for. His blood was full of the above-mentioned products. When they were removed, the pneumonia lessened, and from this attack he recovered – although his life despaired of at the time. Some consultants declared it was better to let him die than to recover, for we all agreed that his limbs would be permanently paralyzed.

I want to call attention to this case especially. This boy, now 21 years old, now has the only of his arms, and one of these is badly crippled. He lives in a wheeled chair, his legs like pipe stems, but he never complains. He has learned to read and to speak several languages, practically has educated himself.

The friends and neighbors call him an encyclopedia, and go to him for all kinds of information. He builds radios; is an expert in the arts as well as many sciences; has of course read hundreds of books; tells the women how to make their dresses; is a student of philosophy, occultism, and of all religions. He is the wonder of the town.

Living in his wheeled chair in an upstairs room which he shares with his parents, he never gets out into the sun. They call this man (whom I always think of as a boy) Walter, and it’s Walter this, Walter that, and “go ask Walter, he knows everything important.”


All doctors when out socially, like lawyers, run across people who insist on asking questions in relation to their personal ailments. A family whom the writer knows was noted for this, and when he was persistently urged, he finally consented to accept a last invitation.

Therefore, on entering the house, this time he deliberately said to the hostess, “I have come, but I want it distinctly understood that I will remain only if you promise not to talk shop.” They consented.

But no sooner had dinner begun than direct medical questions began, as if, it seemed to the writer, that had been the only object of the invitation. But of course it was not, and indirect questions no doctor will object to if there is not too much of it.

The daughter, however, remonstrated right away, and the dinner went on very nicely. But when we were all seated in the drawing room, after a little music, the hostess began, “Now, doctor, this is not medicine. My husband has a lump on his head,” pushing him up to me, “and I want you to feel it and tell me what you think it is and if he ought to have it removed.”

I said, “Mrs. Smith, I believe I left my hat in the hall. Will you please excuse me,” went and got my hat, and walked out.

By that they learned that doctors do not want to be imposed upon. And I learned by a future invitation that it was really me they wanted to see, and not the doctor. Thereafter we got along finely.


In regard to success in the medical field, it is no different from any other line of endeavor. There was a magazine once published by a doctor, called “Success.” Much capital was put into it. It failed, although it was a magazine which catered exclusively to the public, and its chief teaching was to show others how to succeed. To be sure, the editor started over again, but he never made a financial success. And that is what in these days is understood by success.

I know a doctor who married, started practice in a good locality in New York City, stayed there two years, and could not make a living or achieve anything promising. He moved to another locality in a different town nearby, and there took over another doctor’s practice. Today he is the leading physician in that town, now a part of New York, and he began to succeed as soon as he started in that new neighborhood.

I claim no man can tell another how to succeed, or what to do to succeed. One of the handsomest  men I ever knew (and I say this because it’s often said this doctor or that lawyer or minister gets along so well and quickly because he’s good-looking, the ladies like to look at him, etc.), this man started to practice in a fine neighborhood, was well equipped both financially and educationally, but he never made his salt. He started a Sanitarium, for he had command of the cash. It only dwindled along until, long after starting, he died.

In my neighborhood, there started up one day a young Irishman, intelligent, but nothing out of the ordinary in looks or manners. In three years, he had made a fortune, lost it in investments, made another, and is still doing well. Some said it was because he had a pull with his church. But this man was not true; for a few streets above, a most intelligent other Irishman, one of the brightest men I ever met, never could or did make a living at the practice of medicine – and he had a greater influence in the same church.

Yet he did make a fair living at writing, for the words would run off his pen like water out of a spout. And the brain that man had was a caution. He certainly had a philosophical-shaped head, much like Arthur Brisbane‘s, which I claim looks like a square box.

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