A Story of His Life By a Man Who Has Never Gotten Anywhere: Robert Lincoln Watkins, M.D., 1863-1934. Elusive Fame and Fortune Take Their Toll on the Doc.


This section is headed RELAYS, and we all know that a relay in a telephone or telegraph line or circuit is for the purpose of boosting the current so as to get the message over a longer distance. In other words, to add strength to it. So these recollections may do the same for what I am trying to  get across here.

I had found, perhaps naturally, from boyhood days that getting away by oneself and reading or thinking or walking, or traveling over a strange country, revived me. I once told this to a girl who desired me to take her out in the city, and she gave me a good tongue lashing. When I left her the second time at her home she said I was one of those cranks, etc., and that she had seen enough of them. I have since thought that if a woman or a man wants to get rid of the other, make them think you’re crazy. In fact, a married man told me that once, come to think of it.

All my life, even when a boy going to school and when working at the factory vacations, I’ve had longings to be in the woods, to roam about by myself. Perhaps most people do. When on a bright summer day I would have to get up early and go to the shop, I really believed that I had the money to live on I would have gone to the woods instead, but at the same time the thought would occur to me as I trudged off to work that there was lots of time ahead.

Now as I write this, I think there was always in my mind the persistent idea that my life could not go on without money – that is, that I would have to find some way of making it before I could do anything like other people. That I couldn’t get a girl, get married, settle down, for instance, till I had a good living that i was sure of. So I never let the girls seriously bother me.

My grandmother used to tell this story about my uncle when he was a boy. He would say, “When I’m a man, I’ll buy” this thing and that, and when she would ask him where he would get the money to do it with, he would reply, “Why in my pocket, of course.”

So in later life, when I would bet a few dollars ahead, I would plan to use that to do something bigger, something substantial, that would guarantee me income, or a much bigger bunch of cash. But those bigger bunches never came.

I recollect a charming widow with money who probably had me in view, and I would have popped to her, too, if a certain apparatus I was trying to finish went through properly and in time. It didn’t, and the interest on my part died out.

I had the habit some years back of going to the seashore, New York is so handy to it. I went to the Oriental Hotel, although that was a swell place and required fine clothes. I didn’t have the clothes, and could not afford the price, but I went and just looked on, not caring what they thought of me. For I got the quiet of mind that I desired, and that served as a form of relay for me.

Tom Platt, the Republican boss of New York State, and then the owner of the U.S. Express Company, now extinct, had his summer headquarters there. I can see him now, sitting on the veranda in his chair, always talking to three or four people about him. Many celebrities used to spend Saturday and Sunday there, as I did when my pocketbook allowed.

There was a candy man – Leffert’s – very rich they said, who would take sudden notions to scoot into the lobby or dining room through the open window instead of using the door. Of course, the windows were high and long, came down to the floor.

But I have thought often, when an enemy would remark of me for something out of the ordinary that I had done, that I was not so bad that way as either Tom Platt or Teddy Roosevelt. For the former in his old age married a woman – or did not marry her (the Jennings woman) – who got him into all kinds of trouble. And Roosevelt, in politics, turned on Taft, the man he put in for President – and we all know what he did: formed a new party and elected Wilson, his opponent.

I suppose the very first relay in my professional career came when I was in Paris and went to the Latin Quarter. But the most important one, in a negative sense, came after working on one of my machines and its being turned down.

It was culminated by my taking a 25 ampere rheostat, a very light and simple one, to the Biograph Company. They wanted to see it. It worked all right, and had cost me $200 to construct. But after showing it to them, there was no interest. I remember that I lit up a big arc lamp for them, and they then declared that they did not want lightness, the quality which this rheostat possessed, but something heavy.

So I was all in: no business, money wiped out, the woman I was thinking of dropped out of my mind. I became played out, thought enemies were working against me, did not know what to do.

[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 contracted cholera and hooked his uncle up with testicular juice; here are his misadventures in self-publishing while treating a slow-motion suicide-by-drinking; here’s where he hung 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, landing him at Carnegie’s house; here’s where he gets rooked by a crook of a partner; here’s where he lost his shirt working on an invention for 15 years; here’s where he traveled south during the World War and became a DuPont physician who was present for a mass industrial accident; here’s his description of complications involving his patients and practice; here’s his take on syphilis, polio, avoiding impositions, and the nature of success; here’s his description of making a coats-of-arms lantern-slide lecture; here’s his encounter with the Gaekwar of Baroda; here’s when he hung out with a hard-drinking Know Nothing Mason; here’s an encounter with Magic; here’s where he describes a Socratic philosopher/preacher who’s also a topnotch croquet player; here’s where he surveys the NYC restaurant landscape; and here’s a piece I wrote for New York Press upon first reading the memoir.]