By Fred O. Henker, M.D.
Of the eight founders of the Arkansas Medical School, none was better qualified than Dr. Edwin Bentley. During his lifetime, he demonstrated outstanding ability in fields of private medical practice, military medicine, medical pedagogy, administration, diplomatic arbitration and implementation of new facilities.
Edwin was born to George W. and Anne Williams Bentley on July 3, 1824, in New London, Conn. Early education was in local common schools and under private tutors. He received, for the time, thorough medical training at the New York City Medical College, the Twenty Third Street Medical College, the Bellevue Hospital Medical College, and medical department of the University of the City of New York with a medical degree granted in 1849. He then established a thriving general practice in Norwich, Conn.
With the advent of the Civil War, he enlisted June 6, 1861, in the Third Brigade Army of the Potomac and by August 1862 was placed in charge of the U.S. Army General Hospital, Alexandria, Va. In this capacity he established three more hospitals as military duties he became first professor of anatomy at Howard University and successfully courted Miss Marguerite E. Williams of Washington, D.C.
After the Civil War Dr. Bentley chose to remain in the army serving several assignments at nearby stations. In 1869, he was transferred to the west coast where he served in California and neighboring territory. Along with military duties he taught at Medical College of the Pacific at which he was appointed Professor of Anatomy. Also during this period the family was blessed in 1871 with the birth of a son, Carle E. Bentley, who eventually became a leading Little Rock physician.
Unfortunately, all did not remain well for Dr. Bentley. In 1873, he accompanied an artillery unit into the Black Hills on an expedition termed the Modoc War. Being subjected to severe hardships and exposure, his health broke, and thereafter he required several periods of medical leave. A person capable of changing bad into good, he used one such leave (December 1875 to March 1876) to serve as superintendent of California Insane Asylum in order to study mental disorders. The following year, health still impaired, he was given a transfer to New Orleans. There, he received special recognition for his handling of a smallpox epidemic.
In the next phase of his eventful life, the climax was transfer to Little Rock Barracks as post surgeon. Here Dr. Bentley quickly immersed himself into the military, medical and social circles of the city. Fortunately, military requirements were such that he had time to pursue his interest in establishing a medical school, but the climate was not right for such an endeavor. The medical community was embroiled in a bitter dispute over the credentialing of one Almon Brooks. So intense was the conflict that it led to formation of splinter groups from both local and stare medical organizations. Cooperation in formation of a medical school seemed hopeless. Eventually, Dr. P.O. Hooper obtained agreement of both groups to the formation of a planning conference. The date April 4 was set and Dr. Bentley, in recognition of his “reputation as a peacemaker and being a man of unimpeachable character with lofty professional standards,” was selected as chair.
In view of the fragmentation, he declared that if Little Rock were to have a medical college it must be fully recognized by the existing regulatory bodies and by the profession at large with the faculty in good standing with the State Medical Society the only state professional organization fully recognized by the existing regulatory bodies. With skillful, tactful, patient arbitration Dr. Bentley, along with a few others, was able to effect a melding of the various factions so that on Oct. 7, 1879, the first session of the Medical Department of Arkansas Industrial University, class of six, opened. Dr. Bentley gave the welcoming address. Then on March 2, 1880, he delivered the valedictory address for the first commencement exercise at which one medical degree was conferred on transfer student Tom Pinson. The assembled body adjourned for a reception to the Bentley home, a stately mansion at 1200 McAlmont Street, fittingly the future site of the medical school between 1936 and 1957.
Along with his military assignment, Dr. Bentley was able to remain very much a part of the new medical school. He held the position of Professor of the Institutes and Practice of Surgery. Further, he organized a free clinic behind Fones Brothers Hardware on Main Street with the help of his friend Dr. Isaac Folsom, who contributed $20,000 toward its operation with the stipulation that it bear his name. Active in his professional organization, Dr. Bentley represented the Medical Department as delegate to the annual meetings of the Association of American Medical Colleges. Later he served as dean.
The reality of army life finally caught up with Dr. Bentley in 1884 when he was transferred to Texas. This was considered a terrific loss by the medical school and the entire community. There was great joy when he was reassigned to Little Rock Barracks August 5, 1886. He quickly plunged back into medical education. At the medical school, he was reappointed Professor of Surgical Theory and Practice of Medicine and at Pulaski County Hospital Training School for Nurses he lectured on general surgery and related subjects.
On July 3, 1888, Dr. Bentley reached the appropriate age under army regulations and retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He remained in Little Rock, entered private practice at 617 Main Street, and maintained strong ties with the medical school. As evidence of cordial “town-gown” relationship he was elected president of the Arkansas Medical Society for the 1888-1889 year. Incidentally, he used his presidential address to tout his medical school, referring to it as “comparing favorably with the best medical schools.” And then, capping his entire career, upon the death of Dean J.A. Dibrell in 1904 “the kindly and benevolent Dr. Edwin Bentley” was chosen as successor until 1907.
Complementing his superior knowledge of medical subjects Dr. Bentley was known to be a connoisseur of fine books, owning many of the ageless, historical classic medical writings. Of particular interest was a large coarse unbound volume of sixteen pages containing forty five pathologic specimens of intestine preserved, dried, mounted and covered with a heavy coating of clear varnish. Dr. Bentley’s part in the creation of this book is unknown. At present it and most of the other volumes are preserved in the History Collection of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences library.
A capable and dedicated physician, Dr. Bentley actively practiced until a fall in his yard ushered in an illness resulting in his death eight weeks later on February 5, 1917, in his home. He was 92. His body was sent by train to Washington, D.C., and burial was in the National Cemetery.