“He has never turned down a call. Cold winter nights, bad roads, long distances, have not kept Doc indoors when a call came. He feels as much urgency of the need in a shack twenty miles back in the mountains as on Main Street; and ministers with as much care to a grubby patient under an old dirty quilt as to one in the finest house in town. In the old days he went from end to end of the county in his buggy, or on horseback in bad weather, then a Model T Ford…there have been many times when Doc has walked the last mile or two and even today, in his seventies, he still does when there is no road (as sometimes there is none) to the house where he is needed.”
This glowing tribute was sent by a Clayton civic organization to the American Medical Association in 1947 to persuade the AMA to nominate Dr. Jesse Carlton Dover for its general practitioner award. We do not know if he was accorded this honor, but even if he wasn’t, “Doc” was hailed as “the first citizen” of Rabun County for both his medical practice and multitude of civic activities.
Medical Practice Opened in 1899
Dover was born in Clayton in 1875. After high school, he worked at several community schools to earn enough money to attend Young Harris College in Young Harris, Georgia. Following college, he enrolled at Atlanta College of Physicians and Surgeons (now Emory University School of Medicine) in 1897 to earn his M.D. The newly minted doctor returned to Clayton in 1899 to open his medical practice. Actually, Dover began practicing a year earlier. His oldest record book shows that the fledgling doctor delivered a baby on May 9, 1898. His fee was ten dollars for “midwifery” since he did not yet have a physician’s license.
Dover once remarked that he began his Clayton practice before the horse and buggy days. “There was no buggy, just a horse. I finally moved up to the horse and buggy, then the Model T Ford, and then right on up to the present.” His office was at the rear of Dover and Green’s Drugstore that he owned with Dr. J.A. Green. Dover’s office hours ran from 10 to 2 and then from 4 “until the waiting room is cleaned out.” He made house calls as needed during the day and night. Dover was known never to have refused a house call, regardless of the weather or time of day. He also treated his patients regardless of their ability to pay. It is said he never sent a bill to many of his patients, who could not afford his services.
His wife Mary reminisced in a 1975 edition of the Historical Chronicles of the South, “I used to worry about him when he’d go off in the country and stay two or three days waiting for a child to be born…I guess I’ve waited for him 50 of the 52 years we’ve been married…he never would leave a patient that needed him.”
Amputating Arm on Kitchen Table
Given the absence of a hospital until 1952, a Rabun County doctor back in the day was expected to treat more than head colds, rashes, cuts and bruises. Among his medical capabilities, Dover performed many surgeries. He once recounted the story about a man who had been shot through the elbow. Dover traveled 10 miles to the man’s home, where “I had to clean a pot to boil water, and I had to wash off the kitchen table. I gave the patient ether and then got somebody to hold the (ether) mask while I amputated the arm and made him a pretty good stump. I thought he would die but he didn’t.” In recalling a similar operation, Dover said, “He didn’t even flinch during the amputation.”
In a 2001 issue of the Clayton Tribune, Dover’s grandson remarked, “It seems that Dr. Dover once amputated a man’s arm and buried it in the backyard of his office. A few weeks later, the man came to see him complaining of terrible pain in his arm, the one that had been amputated. He proposed that Doc had buried it crooked and begged Doc to dig it up and straighten it out. Dr. Dover did just that, and the man had no trouble after that.”
The Tribune reported in 1958, “The Clayton doctor is hep to the newest medicines and keeps abreast of them all, including tranquilizers.” In the article, Dover commented, “Tranquilizers are filling a niche in medicine when there is evidence of neurasthenia and psychosis. They do some good. I’ve started prescribing them.” It seems the country doctor knew a thing or two about psychiatry.
Known for Erratic Driving
Dover was said to have been one of the first people in Rabun County to own a car. That was in 1913, and stories about his erratic driving are legion. Since Dover started driving before Clayton had traffic lights, it was said he saw no need to stop for a red light. His grandson remarked, “Just about everyone remembers something about him running into someone or running a red light or a stop sign. He’d run over signs and hit things and take it over to Derrick’s (garage on Main Street) and get it fixed.” After getting into a fender bender, he would give the driver of the damaged car a repairman’s name and instruct him to send him the bill.
He made his first house calls by automobile when cars were a novelty on Rabun’s mountain roads. On the way home from one call, Dover said he stopped to give a woman a ride to Clayton. “When she got out, she said ‘Thank you’ and I said ‘Don’t mention it,’ and she looked at me cautiously and whispered, ‘I won’t if you won’t.’ ” On another occasion, Dover recalled, “I overtook an old countryman and gave him a ride…I was driving a Model T and every time I went down a grade, the front spark plug would foul with oil. The motor would go out, and I’d have to crank (start) it again. After we stopped and cranked several times, my passenger asked, ‘How far does it go on one winding?’ ” But even as cars became more reliable, roads in Rabun County did not. When snow came to the mountains, Dover had to garage his car and depend upon his horse for making house calls.
Business and Civic Leader
Busy as he was with his practice, Dover found time for a multitude of civic and business activities. He was a founder of the Bank of Clayton in 1904 and served as its president for years. Dover sat on the county school board for over 50 years and was chairman for most of that time. He also served several terms as Clayton’s mayor and was a trustee of Young Harris College.
He became chairman of the Department of Family and Children’s Services at its founding in 1937. During World War II, Dover headed the Red Cross fundraising campaign as well as the war bond drives. He also was president of the county Medical Board and a staff member of Rabun County Memorial Hospital.
“I haven’t any plans to retire,” Dover was quoted as saying when he was well into his eighties. “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. The people may retire me, but I’m not going to let it happen voluntarily…If the time comes when I don’t have any patients, I’ll open my office anyhow and read a little bit. I can’t sit and hold my hands.”
Dr. Dover wasn’t kidding. He practiced medicine virtually until the day he died at 91 in 1966.
This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Laurel of Northeast Georgia in October 2022.