Family Stories

1873 – Dr. Reuben Saunders Finds Cure for Cholera – McCracken County

Doctor Reuben Saunders, September 8, 1808 – December 13, 1891.  Oak Grove Cemetery, Paducah, McCracken County, Kentucky.

A very modest stone marks the final resting place of Dr. Reuben Saunders, a Paducah physician who found a cure for cholera.  He was lauded by countries across the globe, receiving medals and accolades.  The following story from The Paducah Sun, December 18, 1981, on the 90th anniversary of his death shows how much the man was loved and how much his discovery meant to mankind.

Dr. Saunders was the son of James Saunders, an Indian fighter and Revolutionary patriot who accompanied Daniel Boone into Kentucky on that pathfinder’s second expedition from North Carolina.

It is related in Robert Davis’ book, Over My Left Shoulder, that a wealthy man named Ira Julian lived in Frankfort and realized the potential of Reuben Saunders and paid the full cost of his tuition at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Philadelphia.  It was said Mr. Julian gave Joel Hart, the sculptor, and Matthew Jouett, the painter, their starts in life.  We remember our friend Matthew Jouett, a Mercer countian.

In memory of Adeline C., wife of Dr. R. Saunders, died September 2, 1852, aged 35 years.

One son, John Bartlett Saunders, followed his father’s footsteps and became a doctor.  He contracted tuberculosis during his service during the Civil War.  In 1870 he moved to the Hawaiian Islands and was court physician to the king of Hawaii when he died in 1873.

John Bartlett Saunders, born at Wetumpka, Alabama, August 30, 1840, died at Wailuku, Island of Maui, Hawaiian Kingdom, August 16, 1873.

Paducah physician blundered into a cure for cholera

Paduchan Fred G. Neuman hailed him as a man of ‘noble ways’.  Bill Cunningham of Eddyville lauded him as a ‘soldier of mercy’.  Their object of praise was Dr. Reuben Saunders, a Paducah physician whose accidental discovery of a cholera treatment won him international acclaim more than a century ago.

Saunders died here 90 years ago today.  But his career has not been forgotten by local historians.  Neuman wrote about Saunders in his 1927 Story of Paducah.  Cunningham included Saunders’ story in Flames in the Wind, a book published earlier this year.  Saunders was born on September 6, 1808, in central Kentucky, according to Neuman.  He grew up near Frankfort, graduated from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and moved to Paducah in the 1840s.  Cunningham wrote that Saunders soon became the town’s leading physician:

‘Dr. Saunders fulfilled completely that romantic role of the dedicated, compassionate and selfless country doctor.  His time and concern were totally given to the many sick and afflicted people he attended to at all times of the night and through the most inclement weather.’

Yet his greatest service was rendered in 1876 [correct year, 1873], when a deadly epidemic of cholera swept the country.  The death toll from the dreaded disease was especially high in the South.  ‘Hundreds of Paducahans died swiftly from this highly infectious disease,’ wrote Cunningham.  ‘The town coffin maker worked day and night to hammer together boxes for the growing number of dead and finally fell victim himself.  He was nailed shut in the last box he built.’

Saunders nursed the sick and dying, risking death himself.  When all other treatment failed, he decided to try an experiment.  He chose a young woman who was critically ill and into her body he made an injection.  Neuman included excerpts from Robert H. Davis’ book, Over My Left Shoulder, that told what happened next.  Saunders, according to Davis, ‘injected hypodermically what he thought was one-quarter grain of morphine, but it proved to be one-quarter grain of morphine combined with atropia.’  Immediately, the woman’s condition improved.  The following day he repeated the experiment on a man with the same encouraging results.  ‘Out of six subjects he brought five of them back from the grave and they recovered,’ wrote Davis.

Hopeful that he had indeed discovered a cure for cholera, Saunders telegraphed the new of his experiments to his college, then spread word of his work to other cholera-stricken countries.  ‘For this great discovery,’ wrote Davis, ‘he was decorated by several foreign governments and cited by his own country.  ‘It was a great triumph for a frontier doctor, but he could not be won away from his own people.  There he remained, raised a large family and carried on.’

A grandson became famous as an author, war correspondent, movie actor and humorist.  His name was Irvin S. Cobb.  Neuman wrote that Saunders’ home at 321 S. 3rd Street was torn down in 1914 and replaced by another house two years later.  But he added that a tablet was placed in the sidewalk to commemorate the Saunders house as the birthplace of Cobb in the year of his grandfather’s medical breakthrough.

But besides cholera treatment, Saunders pioneered other fields of medical science.  He was the first to advocate fresh air therapy for pneumonia and tuberculosis.  Saunders was also the first president of the West Kentucky Medical Association, according to Cunningham.

Saunders died on December 13, 1891, and was buried in Oak Grove Cemetery ‘surrounded by hundreds of fellow citizens who loved and admired him for his noble ways,’ wrote Neumann.  Added Cunningham:  ‘He was a soldier of mercy.  He, like so many physicians of the time, gave of himself fully for the good of humankind.  He even more than his other professional peers struck a bell for scientific and medical advancement, even at great risk to himself.’



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