By Fred O. Henker, M.D.
The eldest of the eight founders of the Arkansas Medical School was also the most beloved by his community. In addition to medical education, he gave much in other areas. Born a northerner, he chose Arkansas and gave it his best.
John Josephus McAlmont was born December 19, 1821, at Hornellsville, N.Y. eldest of seven children of Daniel McAlmont and Samantha Donham McAlmont. When John was 17 years old, his father died, and he left home, making his way by teaching school. By age 21, he had saved enough to enter Geneva Medical College, New York, for their one semester course in medicine. He completed this in April 1843, and immediately, on invitation by local citizens, set out on horseback to Kendall Creek, Penn., and there began his practice. The place proved to be a company-owned lumber town not to his liking, so in June 1845 young Dr. McAlmont moved to Waymouth, Ohio, near his grandmother. Here he quickly built a thriving practice and thus was able to return to New York to marry Martha J. Gregg, a former pupil, on Oct. 1, 1845. To this union were born two daughters; Myra and Cresida, the latter dying in infancy. The winter of 1848-49 found John in Western Reserve Medical School, graduating in the Spring of 1849.
He believed rural Ohio winters were bad for his health so he spent the winter of 1849-50 in Cincinnati. After almost accepting an old physician’s offer of partnership, he met a man in a drugstore in town supervising the publication of a map of Arkansas. So great was the appeal of Arkansas as presented by the printer that John decided to move there.
Traveling by steamboat accompanied by his wife Martha, daughter Myra, and sister Julia, John arrived at Little Rock in eight days, on March 10, 1850. He decided the city was too great a threat for his delicate health and continued 25 miles southwest to the little town of Benton, where he practiced for two years. When he felt more secure about his health, he returned to Little Rock in May 1852, opening an office “one door west of Tucker’s Corner on Markham Street.” Early on he became known affectionately as “Dr. John.” Soon he was joined by a younger brother, Corydon, who became known as “Dr. Corey.” At the time, it was an accepted fact that doctors made house calls. Day, night, in town, out of town within a radius of 40 miles, when summoned Dr. John was honor bound to go. To the east, he went as far as Plum Bayou, to the south nearly to Hot Springs, and westward to Maumelle, Natural Steps and Perryville, usually by horseback. Improved roads were rare. Existing trails were rough, crooked, steep, muddy or dusty, bridgeless, and devoid of direction signs, often with nothing to follow except dim paths. Thus travel was slow, occasionally requiring up to two days. He was frequently lost and when overtaken by darkness he would tether his horse, fashion a bed from his longcoat, position his saddle for a pillow and sleep until dawn. He always carried a pouch of green tea leaves, which he chewed to stave off exhaustion. Tobacco and alcohol were never used. Many of his drugs were of doubtful medicinal value, but his character was intensely therapeutic. He was said to have ministered with medicine and with tender loving sympathy. In general, his approach to medicine was intensely professional, calling forth painstaking conscientious attention to details and vigilant oversight. The only exception to Dr. John’s total dedication to Little Rock was in 1869 when he tested practice in Hot Springs. He tried for a few months and then returned to Little Rock.
Dr. John had a special interest in material medica and pharmacology, so it was not surprise that in 1854 he, in partnership with a former U. S. Senator, Solon Boarland, acquired a drugstore on the northeast corner of Markham and Main Streets. This he operated with employees, participating himself when health limitations prevented active medical practice. It could also yield some income in case of total incapacity. He continued this secondary profession until he completely turned to the medical field in 1883. Surprisingly, he announced the opening of another drugstore in 1884, this one at Fifteenth and Chester with Mr. Stover as dispenser. Consistent with his long experience in the retail drug business, Dr. John was active in pharmaceutical politics. He became a member of the America Association of Pharmacists in 1871 and assisted in the formation of the Arkansas Association of Pharmacists in 1883, becoming its first president.
As North-South tension developed, Dr. McAlmont determined to cast his lot with the confederacy. He did not believe in slavery yet he had five “servants.” He was against secession, but when it occurred, he hoped desperately for negotiated settlement. He had family and friends on the North side. In spite of it all when war came, he had adopted the South for over ten years and he chose to stay with her. In May 1961, he moved his family from Third and Louisiana six miles out of town on the Old military Road. Join the local militia, he received the rank of major, in which capacity he participated in the surrender of federal facilities at Little Rock Barracks and Fort Smith. He also served as enrolling officer for Little Rock. From their residence on the Military Road they saw much of the war pass by. They took in sick and wounded soldiers – always had four or five. Dr. John spent long hours in town tending to his practice and drug business while wife Martha minded the home place with the priceless support of five loyal “servants.” Late one night came a knock at the door; it was Corydon, his children, a black nursemaid and three slaves. He had been ordered out with King’s Regiment as unit surgeon. He requested John to care for the children and sell the slaves and his house and three lots on Main Street to cover their expenses. Several months later he was brought back with dysentery and fever (typhoid). He died shortly – a war casualty without a wound. When Little Rock fell to Union troops on September 10, 1863, the McAlmonts did not escape to Texas as did many citizens, including the mayor. After the war ended, the McAlmonts moved back into town to a stately home at 800 Cumberland. Dr. John continued his practice from an office at 213 East Eighth.
During the late 1870s, Dr. McAlmont became associated with a group of progressive physicians dedicated to the establishment of a medical school for the state of Arkansas. On Oct. 8, 1879, their efforts culminated in the gathering of six students, eight faculty members, and assorted local dignitaries for the formal ceremony marking the opening session of the Arkansas Industrial University Medical Department. Dr. McAlmont, because of his superior knowledge of pharmacology, was made professor of pharmacology and therapeutics and because of his 20 years experience in the retail drug business became treasurer of the school. He held both positions until his death.
Wherever he went, Dr. McAlmont enriched the community by his investment of himself. Upon settling in Little Rock, in 1852, he joined First Methodist Church and was a contributing member the rest of his life. He served as steward and trustee for over forty years and was considered a wonderful teacher.
His probity and Christian integrity made him a leader of thought. He carried a little booklet in which were written 65 rules of conduct, one of which was that the entire book be read twice a week. He was also active in Scottish Rite Masonry, attaining up to 32nd degree, as well as Knights Templar and as trustee for St. John’s College, a Masonic sponsored college in east Little Rock. Similarly he was on the board of directors of Arkansas Female Academy and attending physician and member of the board of trustees of Arkansas School for the Blind. Nor did he neglect civic challenge. He served as alderman on the city council and in 1865 was asked to run for mayor. He replied: “If nominated, I will make no move to seek the office, but if elected I will give it my best.” He was elected to the 1866-67 term and served well. Such activities bear out qualities attributed to him by associates – quiet, compassionate, unassuming, always willing to assume responsibilities both public and spiritual.
On Sept. 24, 1896, he became acutely ill at his home and died within 48 hours, attributed to intestinal obstruction. This was the first death among the close knit little faculty of the medical department. The funeral was held Sept. 26, and Rev. O. L. Petillo officiating, moved to Winfield Methodist Church due to insufficient room for mourners at First Methodist. Interment was at Mount Holly Cemetery conducted by the Knights Templar before one of the largest concourses ever seen at a funeral in Little Rock. Truly Dr. McAlmont was loved by the city.
In his memory, the street before the old Medical School was named McAlmont. You cannot paint his character for probity, modesty, unselfishness, piety, and generosity in colors that would be too bright.