Londonderry Family of Doctors Make History

The following story was written by Richard Holmes, author of “Nutfield Rambles.” While not an excerpt, Londonderry Hometown Online News has published stories from the book in the past, and will continue to do so. Be sure to explore the site and visit in the future to read other pieces by Richard Holmes. If you’re interested in purchasing a copy of “Nutfield Rambles,” contact us.

Today we are in the midst of a national debate on health care. Time magazine recently had a fine article on the cost of healthy care in different hospitals. The Mayo Clinic in Minnesota was reported as being the best by providing excellent care at a lower cost, than the other major hospitals. The secret to the Mayo Clinic’s success is that its entire staff works closely together as a team to provide “integrated and coordinated care.” In addition the patent’s medical records are instantly retrievable making treatment faster, cheaper and error free. The road that led to the Mayo Clinic’s success began right here in Londonderry.

Abel Plummer moved to Londonderry from Rowley, Massachusetts in 1775 along with his wife, his elderly father and 7 children. All 3 of his boys served in the local militia. His son, Nathan enlisted in Patriot army in 1776 and was wounded while serving under Col. Matthew Thornton and Gen. John Stark.

After the war, Nathan returned home to Londonderry and married Mary Palmer. Their son Nathan Jr. was born in 1787 and educated in the local one-room schools. In time, the boy decided he wanted to be a physician. Most doctors in those days didn’t learn their profession in medical school, instead they apprenticed to an experienced doctor. For several years Nathan was student, servant and assistant to Dr. Robert Bartley who practiced in medicine in Londonderry from 1792-1820.

For awhile Plummer practiced in Londonderry, but in 1818 he moved to Chester, the hometown of his wife Sarah Colby (1793-1836). After her death he married Mahitable Dinsmore (1802-1894). He continued to practice medicine in Chester-Auburn as a physician and surgeon until the infirmities of old age made him retire around 1860. He died in 1871. Of his 9 children only Albert (1840-1912) followed him into the field of medicine. Albert learned the rudiments of his craft from his father and later graduated from Bowdoin College (MD, 1867). During the Civil War he served with the 10th N.H. regiment- originally as a hospital orderly but later as an assistant surgeon.

Like many New Hampshire men of the 19th century, Dr. Albert Plummer had sand in his shoes. After the war he moved alone to a small town in Minnesota where he began a medical practice. There he married Isabelle Steele, a local school teacher. Dr. Albert Plummer soon became a respected local doctor. In time he gained a state wide reputation as a diagnostician and he moved his practice to the city of Racine, Wisconsin. Two children were born to the couple; Henry, 1874; William, 1883; both became college educated physicians and connected with the Mayo Clinic.

Young Henry wanted to be an engineer but he was persuaded by his Dad to follow the family profession. He attended the University of Minnesota and Northwestern University and received his medical degree in 1898. After graduation he returned to Racine to assist his ailing father in his practice. Henry was on call 24-7. He devised a “simple lever-activated rope system outside his bedroom window that released oats in the barn, allowing his horse to feed before he went out.” He also devised a jerry-rigged device which allowed him to connect telephone lines to barbed wire fences so he could be in touch with his patients even when he was out camping on the prairie.

In 1901, Dr. Will Mayo asked Dr. Albert Plummer to consult with him in a rural farmhouse on a suspected case of leukemia. Albert was too ill to travel so he sent his eldest son in his place. Before leaving, Henry packed a microscope in his suitcase. At the patient’s bedside, Henry took blood samples from the patient and a hired hand. Young Doctor Plummer then proceeded to show the legendary Dr. Will Mayo the difference between blood from a person with leukemia and one without leukemia.

Dr. Will Mayo was very impressed with this recent college graduate that he told his brother, Dr. Charlie Mayo, that they really should hire the young man. Within two weeks Henry was in charge of the laboratories at the Mayo Clinic. Dr Will Mayo would later say that the “hiring of Henry Plummer was the best day’s work he ever did for the clinic.”

Among Henry’s first responsibilities was the development of the hospital’s first X-Ray laboratory and he became a pioneer in the field of X-Ray diagnoses and therapy. His intensity in the field of radiology is shown by the fact that his hands were permanently scared by multiple X-Ray burns.

The list of Dr. Henry Plummer’s accomplishments is incredible! Plummer-Vinson syndrome (a condition linked to severe anemia deficiency) is named after him, as is Plummer’s nails (a separation of the ring-finger nail as a result of thyrotoxicosis and arthritis). In 1922, he led the team that established the value of iodine in the treating of goiters. There is also Plummer’s disease and something called Plummer’s sign which is used in the diagnosis of Grave’s Disease. His treatment for thyroid disease became the standard treatment across the world until the 1970’s and it was common for physicians to say they were going to “Plummerize” a patient.

Dr. Plummer is also credited with two of the most important developments in the history of 20th century medicine and is sometimes called “the architect of the modern medical practice.”

Before Dr. Plummer, all doctors kept their patent’s notes in bound journals. Your medical information might be found on page 23, 87 and 176 in volume 3 and page 54 in volume 6. Information retrieval was nearly impossible! Henry Plummer invented the modern “dossier” system in which every patient has a separate medical folder and ID number to assure the rapid retrieval of patent information. Now when you go to the doctor, your complete medical history is available in chronological order to your medical professional. He also developed the idea of the integrated medical group practices in which medical laboratories, physicians and technicians work together cooperatively to treat the whole patient.

The Plummer Building at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota was designed by Dr. Henry Plummer.

In the 1920’s Plummer personally designed the Mayo Clinic’s building which now bears his name. His 5 story, 49 room mansion was given to the city of Rochester, Minn. as a center for the arts.

The tall, stooped, thin Dr. Plummer was universally recognized as an excellent teacher-physician but he was also considered to be more than a trifle eccentric. Often half way through a private conversation with a colleague, Plummer would suddenly walk away without warning or explanation. A week or a month later, he would unexpectedly walk up to the same person to finish the discussion as though nothing had happened and no time had elapsed.

On the afternoon of Dec. 31, 1936 Henry Plummer suddenly became quite ill. He was able to correctly diagnose that he was suffering from a cerebral thrombosis and was also able to accurately predict the course and stages of his condition. He died a few hours later. He left his wife Daisy, a granddaughter of Dr. Will Mayo and 2 children- none of whom seems to follow the family’s tradition of being medical doctors- a tradition that had begun in 18th century Londonderry, N. H.

Born in NH, Richard Holmes was raised and attended school throughout New Hampshire. He received his Bachelor’s Degree in Education from Keene State College and his Master’s Degree in History from Rivier College. In 2003 he founded the Derry Museum of History. In 2007 Richard Holmes received an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History. This is the most prestigious recognition one can receive for the preservation and interpretation of state and local history. Richard is also a regular columnist for the Derry News and a frequent contributor to the Nutfield News, the Lawrence Eagle Tribune and the Manchester Union Leader.


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