By Fred O. Henker, M.D. and Jeanette J. Shorey, M.D.
Of all native born Arkansans who have achieved greatness, none stand out brighter than Philo Oliver Hooper. He did not graduate from an Arkansas medical school because none existed when he needed to attend. So he founded one.
Dr. Hooper came from a staunch family of early settlers. His father, Alanson Hooper, was born in Massachusetts in 1787, and after reaching manhood moved to Louisiana, where he married Miss Magdaline Perry, a native of the state. In 1829, they moved to Little rock, Ark., where their son and only child, Philo Oliver, was born October 11, 1833. His father died at age 63 in 1850, and upon his mother fell the stern duty of rearing, providing for and guiding the son. Without any of the advantages of wealth or influence to aid him, he developed an amiable character of such sterling worth as to acquire the goodwill of the whole community. After completing the scant education available locally, he first entered business at the age of 16 as deputy in the post office. After a few years of hard work and frugal living, he pursued his literary education at Nashville University in Nashville, Tenn. Returning home, he secured the chief clerkship in the drug establishment of Dr. William W. Adams. At the same time he began the study of medicine under the tutelage of Dr. Lorenzo Gibson, Sr., which he pursued with great diligence and success. As soon as practical he continued his study at Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, graduating in 1856. Immediately, he was admitted to full partnership with his mentor, Dr. Gibson, and rapidly won acclaim among his professional associates and throughout the state of Arkansas. From that time for the next half century, whenever anything significant happened in Arkansas medicine, P. O. Hooper was there.
On Nov. 3, 1859, the eminent young Dr. Hooper married Georgie Carroll, native of Alabama, daughter of Col. G. R. Carroll, at the resident of the bride in Conway County, Ark. This union was blessed with three sons and two daughters: Perry, Phil, George, Katie, and Bernia. The family was held in high esteem by the community as evidenced by the naming of the riverboat Katie Hooper after the daughter in 1877. Dr. Hooper showed approval of secret societies by joining the Masons and I.O.O.F.
At the outbreak of the civil War, Dr. Hooper left his family and practice and entered Confederate service in April 1861. Here his leadership ability became evident and grew. He became medical director of the Department of Indian Territory, on the staff of General Albert Pike, with the rank of major. In this capacity he was stationed at Fort Gibson until just after the battle of Elkhorn Tavern when he was ordered by General Van Dorn to Memphis. After a short service in the military hospitals of that place he was ordered to Little Rock by General John S. Roane who commanded the Arkansas department. It became his duty to gather up all medical supplies in the area and remove them to Washington, Ark., where he remained until called back to Little Rock in 1862 by General Hindman and assigned to duty on the Confederate medical board for the examination of applicants for appointments in the medical service in the Trans-Mississippi department. Soon after his appointment to this board he was made president, continuing in this capacity at locations in Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and the Indian Territory until the end of the war, having been under fire at Greenwood and Pleasant Hill, La.
Simply practicing medicine, for which he was highly renowned, was not enough for Dr. Hooper. He was concerned about the general welfare of the people of his community, many of who were receiving inferior care from eclectic and homeopathic healers who were forming professional organizations, publishing journals, and establishing colleges so that a confusing situation existed for many lower educated persons. Thus, to protect them from vegetable or drugless therapies and expose heretics, he and twelve other physicians organized the Little Rock and Pulaski County Medical Society in January, 1866. Unfortunately, bad luck fell upon the leadership of the fledgling society. The first president, Dr. A. W. Webb, was murdered along with his son the night of June 13, 1866, whereupon Dr. Lorenzo Gibson assumed the office only to die three months later. He was followed by Dr. James A. Dibrell, Sr., who very soon chose to move to Van Buren, whereupon the then 22 members of the society elected the 34-year-old Dr. P. O. Hooper, president. Under his leadership they flourished and by November 21, 1870, the members had invited interested physicians to a meeting held at Little Rock’s Pacific Hotel to form a state organization. Dr. Hooper, considered the most influential physician politician of his general, was chosen to deliver the welcoming address. With little hesitation the delegates formed the Arkansas State Medical Association with Dr. Hooper as first president.
The next incident, involving the county and state societies and Dr. Hooper, demonstrates his fervent stand for whatever he considered right and his rugged tenacity. It all began in April, 1872, when Dr. Claibourne Watkins proposed Dr. Almon Brooks of Hot Springs for membership in the Little Rock and Pulaski County Society. A division arose among the members concerning his desirability in view of certain questionable practices which Dr. Hooper sought to correct by proposing that the application be disapproved for want of jurisdiction since Brooks live outside Pulaski County. This was not satisfactory and the dispute lingered. On June 4, a special meeting was called, attended by Brooks’ supporters, Dr. Hooper and his partner, Dr. Breysacher. With the latter two abstaining, they quickly voted unanimously in favor of Brooks’ application as well as a resolution praising his professional ability. This was a stinging blow to Dr. Hooper and his supporters. Dr. Brooks, seemingly content to leave well enough alone, did not push his advantage and with nine other physicians organized the Hot Springs County Medical Society. At the next meeting of the state association, Dr. Hooper’s faction saw to it that the credentials committee rejected the petition of the brooks group for recognition; furthermore, Dr. Hooper and seven associates filed protest objecting to the June 4 called meeting and Brooks group for recognition and Brooks approval. There followed a battle of published statements and eventually the withdrawal of the Brooks opponents from the county society to form their own, though smaller, association, the college of Physicians and Surgeons of Little Rock, with P. O. Hooper as its guiding light.
Meanwhile, at the state level contention was fierce. In spite of a report to the contrary by a committee named by Dr. D. A. Linthicun of Helena, a close friend of Dr. Hooper’s, Brooks was not only admitted to the association but elected second vice-president. Dr. Hooper and numerous associates withdrew. In an attempt to gain outside assistance in the formation of new state society, Dr. Hooper and a colleague brought the matter to the floor of the AMA convention in Louisville, Kentucky, in May, 1875 and on October 13 met with delegates from at least twelve counties to form the State medical Society of Arkansas. Dr. Hooper did not accept an office. After all of the strife, Brooks was expelled at the 1875 convention and he moved to Chicago. The following year, the State Medical Society was recognized by the AMA. Hooper had triumphed at last. He expanded his activities to the national level even to election to vice presidency of the America Medical Association in 1882, in which capacity he presided over its national meeting St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1883, the only Arkansas to have done so.
In addition to his medical society activities, Dr. Hooper was instrumental in the establishment of a medical school in Arkansas. Early talks had occurred between Little Rock physicians and the staff of St. John’s College, an institution of higher learning opened by the Masonic order on Tenth Street between McGowan and Welsh, relative to the creation of a medical department. Although there was interest, action was hampered by political unrest and fragmentation of the medical community by the Almon Brooks issue. Finally, in March, 1879, Leo Baier, president of St. John’s asked Dr. Hooper and his associates in the College of Physicians and Surgeons to assume responsibility for organizing and conducting the medical school. Receiving enthusiastic agreement he proceeded to meet with the rival Little Rock and Pulaski County Medical Society requesting their cooperation. The consented and on April 4, a planning meeting was held chaired by Hooper’s associate, Dr. Edwin Bentley, a United States Army surgeon stationed at the little Rock Barracks. The medical school was now conceived but for some reason the affiliation with St. John’s College was dropped. In May, 1879, Dr. Hooper entered into correspondence with General D. H. Hill, president of Arkansas Industrial University at Fayetteville, relative to the establishment of a private medical department under the school’s charter. Hill made the recommendation to the trustees and on June 17, 1879, they enacted a resolution that such a branch be established immediately in Little Rock, free of charge and expense, with P. O. Hooper as principal. He quickly assembled a faculty comprising James A. Dibrell, professor of Anatomy; Edwin Bentley, Professor of Surgery; R. G. Jennings, Professor of Surgery; J. J. McAlmont, Professor of Materia Medica and Therapeutics; James H. Southall, Professor of Medicine; A. L. Breysacher, Professor of Obstetrics and diseases of children; and Claiborne Watkins, Professor of Chemistry and Toxicology, with himself as dean and Professor of Principles and Practice of medicine. In August, they acquired the Sperindio Hotel a three-story building at 113 West Second Street, for $5,000 as a site for the school. On Sept. 26, 1879, “The Arkansas Industrial University Medical Department,” was incorporated under the laws of the state with capital stock of $5,000 divided into 200 shares. Dr. Hooper and his seven associates were names as incorporators, each subscribing to 25 shares. The first session opened October 7, 1879 with six students. Happily 16 others joined the class over the next few weeks. At the first commencement exercise, March 2, 1880, Dean Hooper conferred a medical degree upon Tom M. Pinson, a transfer from another medical school. The diploma did not arrive in time so Dean Hooper rolled his own and presented it temporarily. He presided as dean until he resigned to become superintendent of the lunatic asylum in 1885 and thereafter remained as emeritus professor and lectured on Principles and Practice of Medicine until his death in 1902.
Another high level concern of Dr. Hooper’s was the care of the mentally ill, toward which he devoted much attention and study, acquiring a distinguished reputation in the field. Consequently, he was a respected member of the American Medico-Psychological Association and the New York Medico-Legal Society. The latter association was due to the emphasis placed at the time upon the legal aspects of mental illness. He recognized the sad plight of the mentally ill in Arkansas, many of whom were incarcerated in jails or left to roam aimlessly about the countryside with no consistent supply of food, clothing or shelter. Desiring a suitable institution, as all but two other states had created by that time, he wrote hundreds of letters all over Arkansas crystallizing sentiment in favor of its establishment. In 1873, the legislature appropriated $50,000 for the purchase of land and erection of building. Unfortunately, political turmoil and lack of funds halted the project after the acquisition of a site, an imposing and spacious elevation three miles west of Little Rock. Undaunted, Dr. Hooper continued his thrust. In 1876, he toured several eastern states inspecting insane asylums and returned with specific recommendations for a structure to be built at a cost of $150,000. Governor Thomas J. Churchill approved a bill levying a one mill state property tax for two years to provide an estimated $150,000 for construction, furnishing and operating the Arkansas Lunatic Asylum. Furthermore, he appointed Dr. Hooper president of the board composed of Thomas R. Welch, John g. Fletcher, John W. Slayton and J. M. Hudson to oversee the construction, the equipping and eventually the operation of the institution. When completed in late 1882, the building was the finest of its kind, a handsome four-storied brick structure with central administration section facing east and wings extending to the north and south for housing female and male patients respectively. Dr. C. C. Forbes was secured as first superintendent and upon resignation in 1886, Dr. Hooper himself was elevated to the post, holding it until 1893, when he resigned and spent a year in California. Then in January, 1897, the superintendency again became vacant and he was called upon to resume the duties of the position: which he did, directing the institution in his usual highly efficient manner until forced to retire due to ill health in a few weeks before his death at the age of 68 in 1902.
The years had taken their toll from this professional giant. His son Philo had presumably died, as had his mother in 1877. His compulsive, driven nature together with his corpulent stature, as revealed in all of his pictures, must have predisposed him to cardiovascular pathology. Possibly the 1893 resignation from the asylum (and the year in California) was occasioned by illness. He evidently rallied but then in March 1902, his beloved wife, Georgie, died. As is so often the case, the trend turned downward. For some time friends saw that he appeared weary and tired of the strain of applying himself too diligently to his exacting duties at the asylum. They urged him to retire, which he did effective July 1. A short time later he became ill with “acute indigestion” complicated by “asthmatic troubles.” Thinking that a vacation in California would benefit him, he left by train July 28 accompanied by his daughter Katie and son Perry. On the morning of July 29, 1902, he died, as the train passed through Sayre, Oklahoma, supposedly from asthma. The body was returned to Little Rock and buried in Mt. Holly cemetery from Christ Episcopal.
Though the physical component of Dr. Hooper has lain at rest in the hallowed ground of Mt. Holly for nearly a century the fruits of his intelligence and effort continue to enrich us all. It is especially fitting that the street passing between the two great institutions which he was instrumental in founding bears his name – Hooper Drive.
An earlier version of a paper on this topic appeared in The Journal of the Arkansas Medical Society – October 1981.