Remembering two rural doctors

By Lisa Williams Ackley
Staff Writer

Fifty years ago today, on June 23, 1961, the state of Maine lost two of its finest rural doctors — my dad, Dr. Ralph Edmund Williams, of Freeport — and Dr. Henry Simpson Hebb, of Bridgton.

Both men grew up in large, rambling homes in small, rural villages where their fathers were country doctors before them. So, they literally learned the art of selfless, empathetic compassion and unwavering dedication to healing the sick at their fathers’ knees.

Dr. Hebb received both his undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Vermont, while my father attended Bowdoin College for his undergraduate studies and the University of Vermont College of Medicine, as did his father Edmund Percival Williams M.D., and his uncle, James Williams M.D. My grandfather, Edmund, was a doctor in Oakland, and Uncle Jim practiced medicine for decades in Mechanic Falls.

It was at the University of Vermont Medical School where my dad and Dr. Hebb first met. Their fathers, Edmund and Angus, first met at Bowdoin, when they were young pre-med students and they later attended medical school together in Vermont.

My dad and Dr. Hebb had a lot in common, both professionally and personally. Each became a general practitioner and married a registered nurse in 1937 — my dad married my mother, Ola Dutcher of Thomaston, Connecticut — and Dr. Hebb married June Carpenter of Limerick, who later served as longtime head nurse at Northern Cumberland Memorial Hospital, now known as Bridgton Hospital. Both men served as captains in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, during World War II. My father was a member of the 67th Maine General Hospital War Unit formed in Portland in 1942 and that trained at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas before being shipped to a hospital in Taunton, England. Maine General Hospital is the predecessor of Maine Medical Center. Dr. Hebb served in the South Pacific Theater during the war.

Dr. Hebb had his office in the same historic home on Main Street in Bridgton where his father Angus had also tended to the ailments and afflictions of the residents of the Lake Region. He and June raised four children in the big house next door to the Bridgton Public Library — Patsy, Dorcas, Henry and Dick.

My dad first set up his medical practice in New Gloucester’s Upper Village in the late 1930s, where he was physician to the people living in the surrounding area, as well as the Sabbathday Lake Shakers who considered him their trusted friend. My parents decided to relocate to Freeport Village, in the 1940s, and purchased both a saltwater farm on Flying Point and a bungalow-style home on Main Street across from what is now the United States Post Office.

Then, in the early 1950s, my folks “traded” houses with the Davis family, an elderly couple who had decided a 24- room, federal-style mansion was too large for them. So, we moved farther up Main Street to the Captain Josiah Mitchell House built in 1789 and later transported to its current location at the corner of Main and East Streets by a team of oxen. It was the perfect place for my mom and dad to raise their three children — my brother Tony, my sister Chris, and I — while housing both a suite of offices, examining rooms and a pharmacy closet. My parents were founders of the Regional Memorial Hospital in Brunswick (now Midcoast Hospital), as Dr. and Mrs. Hebb were founders of Northern Cumberland Memorial Hospital.

Both Dr. Hebb and my dad missed a lot of family time, while they stitched up wounds, performed numerous surgeries, went out at all hours of the night and day to tend to accident victims and deliver babies at home, and held long office hours — always, above all else, taking care of the medical needs of their patients in their respective communities. I remember many evenings where I would go in to my dad’s office in my pajamas and crawl up on to his lap and kiss him goodnight, as he sat at his desk writing out instructions for the patient he was seeing.

My father, raised by upright, God-fearing Quaker parents, was a kindhearted, generous and humble man, affectionately called “Doc” by all who knew him. L.L. Bean called my dad friend, and the two men shared a love of fishing, enjoying each other’s company on the lakes of central and southern Maine. He was also revered as “the children’s doctor” in the communities of Freeport, Durham and Pownal, where he served as school physician. I would ride along with him into the countryside on house calls, where he tended to his patients, some of whom lived in small, tarpapered shacks with dirt floors, sheets of plastic on the windows and no indoor plumbing. My dad treated each and every one the same — it didn’t matter — to him, they were country folk, just like him. Dr. Hebb held the same pure, non-judgmental values as my dad.

My father and Dr. Hebb, like their fathers before them, were true Maine country doctors — physicians first, and businessmen second. They were both beloved for their tenderness and their skill at doctoring whatever ailed their patients, many of whom were also their dear friends.

I didn’t just lose my father that morning in June, 1961, when I was eight and-a-half years old — I lost my hero. Dr. Hebb’s family lost their hero, too. And, the communities they both served faithfully — Bridgton and Freeport — lost their heroes, as well.

Hard to believe, it was a half-century ago, today.

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