By Fred O. Henker, M.D.
Claiborne Watkins, who was to become a founder of the Arkansas Medical School, descended from an amazingly aristocratic and productive family. Grandfather Isaac Watkins, a native Virginian and War of 1812 veteran, immigrated with his family in a keel boat via Shelbyville, Ky. in March 1821 to a site destined to become Little Rock where he built a rough structure for a tavern, quite a daring feat. He was also quite religious. The First Baptist Church was organized at his home.
An uncle, Isaac’s eldest son Robert Anderson Watkins, became a physician, commissioner of education and Arkansas’ first Secretary of State. Another uncle, Isaac’s third son George Claiborne, organized the Antiquarian and Historic Society, was Director of Little Rock Gas Company, President of St. John’s College Board, State Attorney General and the Chief Justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. For him Watkins Street was named, later changed to 14th street. George was the father of Claiborne Watkins.
Claiborne Watkins was born March 3, 1844 in Little Rock, Ark., the second of two sons of George Claiborne Watkins and Mary Crease Watkins. He enjoyed the good fortune of growing up amid affluent surroundings. Education was by private tutors and local public facilities. When these were completed he was sent to St. Timothy’s Hall, a renowned school in Catonsville, Md., a suburb of Baltimore.
With the onset of North-South hostilities in 1861 Claiborne, having strong sympathy with the South, left his studies at St. Timothy’s to join the Confederacy only weeks before he was to have received a degree in letters and science. He returned to Little Rock and then to Benton, Ark. where a new infantry company was forming. Enlisting as a private he was soon promoted to lieutenant and eventually captain. On April 15, 1862 he was captured along with his regiment, imprisoned six months and was exchanged at Vicksburg. He soon was back on duty participating in scouting expeditions and on one such action was captured again and confined at New Orleans for more than a month until he escaped. Within a few weeks he was back on duty with a Confederate unit under General R. D. Lee at Jackson, Miss. where he served until the end of the war. The unit surrendered to Union officers on April 12, 1865.
Upon release from Confederate service at the end of the Civil War, Claiborne returned to Little Rock where he associated himself with the Government Hospital. He served until time to enroll in Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia.
Dr. Watkins graduated in 1867 and returned to Little Rock where he engaged an office and began his practice. Before long his thoroughness and compassion won for him a reputation of being the city’s leading physician. He kept abreast of new developments in the medical field and was the first in the region to successfully remove an appendix. In conjunction with his partner Dr. Edward Clark he maintained a private infirmary on Lincoln Avenue.
In June 1873, Dr. Watkins married Mildred Farley of Mississippi. They had religious differences – she was a Methodist while he was Episcopalian. All five of their daughters were reared, baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church.
Mary P. Fletcher, writing in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, describes the wife as hypochondriacal to the extent that she was afraid to be home alone. When the doctor was called out into the country he had to take her with him and upon reaching the caller’s home first had to have them prepare a bed for her while he rendered the services needed. Dr. Watkins was easy to recognize by his imperial beard and the monocle he always wore.
At this time, medical organizations were dealing with an “oversupply of regular physicians.” Medical Society membership was denied Almon Brooks of Hot Springs as a professional fraud, because of “a spirit of opposition, consultation irregularities and use of irregular characters in his prescriptions.” Dissension arose between those for and against Brooks, first among the Hot Springs group that eventually spread to the American Medical Association’s 1875 convention. Complicating matters, Dr. Watkins had championed Brooks in 1872 recommending him for membership in the Little Rock and Pulaski County Medical Society. So decisive was the matter that members withdrew from both local and state organizations and formed new counter groups. Watkins remained with the older group. Eventually Brooks moved to Chicago, reducing the tension but leaving frustration, wounded pride and bitterness.
During the mid 1800s, central Arkansas had plenty of doctors but their qualifications varied from well prepared, some who shadowed practicing physicians as apprentices down to those who “just took it up.” Unfortunately there were too many of the latter type. Treatment at that time often included measures such as purging, blistering, bloodletting, and emetics. The more conscientious physicians, usually guided by Dr. P. O. Hooper, sought to remedy the situation by licensing and medical organizations but to no avail.
Finally it became evident that to get well-trained physicians locally they would have to be trained locally, meaning a medical school. This was hindered by the Civil War aftermath and the Almon Brooks conflict, particularly resentment over Watkins’ blatant support of Brooks. As for Watkins, he was losing interest in his general medical practice and resorted to pharmacy as it allayed his disappointment in the state of the medical profession. Meanwhile, surmounting numerous difficulties, a small group of physicians largely guided by Dr. Hooper, arranged a place for a medical school, Arkansas Industrial University sponsorship and a faculty for the school to open Oct. 7, 1879. Watkins, because of his interest and capability in compounding medicines, was chosen as professor of chemistry and toxicology. He proved to be a dedicated teacher. Students were fascinated by the monocle he wore.