In May of 1882, Palm Beach County’s first doctor, Richard Buckle Potter, M.D. arrived in the Lake Worth community, now known as Palm Beach. Dr. Potter had been living in northeast Miami since 1874. At age 29, he moved from Cincinnati, Ohio because of his younger brother’s asthmatic condition. Miami was a small community of 25 families and the “ doctor business was slow.”
A few miles north on the shores of Lake Worth, a community was growing rapidly. The people in Lake Worth wanted a doctor and recruited Dr. Potter. Excited to have a more active medical practice, Dr. Potter eagerly moved to a 160-acre homestead in the southern part of present Palm Beach. By 1887, the Lake Worth community had a population of 400 while Biscayne Bay community had 100 people. It is reported that he walked fifteen miles up the beach to care for the sick and would stay with them until they were well. Later he obtained a 20-foot boat to travel the region and worked with a mid-wife to deliver children of many of the pioneers in the Lake Worth region.
In 1893, Dr. Potter built a residence-office on the west side of the lake near the foot of present Gardenia Street. The city of West Palm Beach would be incorporated in 1894. In the early days, it is said, “ the city resembled a western mining town. Within four years after Dr. Potter arrived, there were 17 killings, one lynching, and hundreds of shootings and cutting scrapes, largely among the construction workers on the Flagler hotels”
“Dr. Potter seemed to get his greatest pleasure in serving his neighbors, and took perhaps too little interest in the accumulating wealth.” In the early days on the bay, he had developed a reputation among the Seminole Indians as a good medicine man and when he moved to Lake Worth they followed him and were often found sitting on a bench in front of the doctor’s office.
Dr. Potter spent most of his lifetime of practice without a hospital or modern facilities. Dr. Henry Hood was the second physician and until 1898 they were the only ones to practice in the fast growing community. Dr. Hood was very active in organizing the first hospital and the Palm Beach County Medical Society.
The population of West Palm Beach increased considerably as a result of the extension of the railroad in the 1890’s. By the turn of the century there need for“ a place for emergencies and to house the sick.” Dr. and Mrs. Leon Ashley Peek were largely responsible for the building of a five-bed cottage known as the “Emergency Hospital” in 1914. When Dr. Peek arrived in 1910, he was shocked to discover that there was not a hospital. The lot given by Mr. Henry Flagler was located on Third Street near the Florida East Coast Railroad. When the hospital opened, local businesses closed to attend the benefit baseball games. The hospital had an operating room, a nurse’s room, a kitchen and a bathroom. The nurse or houseworker slept in a tent in the rear yard. The weekly charge for patients was left to the discretion of the hospital’s managing committee, but the minimum rate was not less than $3 a day. Pine Ridge, hospital for colored people was completed a little later.
Within three years the Emergency Hospital became overcrowded and plans were underway to build a new hospital. Good Samaritan Hospital opened in 1920 having 35 beds at its present location on Flagler Drive. At the time there was much dissension over a new location, many thought the site to be “too far out in the swamps”. “The doctors administered ether right out of a can and carried portable X-ray equipment and other tools in his car from place to place.”
Dr. William Ernest Van Landingham moved to West Palm Beach in 1918 and served as the Superintendent of Good Samaritan Hospital in its early days. The doctor would flag down any freight or passenger train to take him to or from his calls. He also had to use the baggage car to transport very sick patients on cots to the hospital in St. Augustine. “His practice was typical of a country doctor; making calls by horse and buggy, bicycle train and boat. On one night call he returned to the dock and stepped off into waist deep water; the tide had carried his boat out.”
In 1919, according to Medical Society records, Dr. Van Landingham was one of the nineteen founding members of the Palm Beach County Medical Society and later served as the organization’s President. At their first meeting, a fee schedule was adopted: West Palm Beach calls $2, out of town calls $3, night calls $4, obstetrical (normal) $30, anesthesia $5 to $25, The members of the Medical Society held their meetings in different homes and offices and enjoyed the opportunity to get together to discuss cases.
Dr. John Robert Cason traveled from the southern end of the county to attend meetings. Dr. Cason arrived in Delray in 1905 at the age of 24 becoming the first and only doctor to serve the sparsely settled section from Palm Beach to Pompano until 1920. “There was no electricity, telephones were scarce and few roads let to the deeply rutted sand trails going to the widely scattered farms. A two room building on Atlantic Avenue served as office and drugstore. An epidemic of diphtheria swept the area and Dr. Cason’s efforts to treat typhoid were resented by some. In an effort to eradicate typhoid, he staged a campaign to cleanup outhouses and administer vaccines.
The small town of West Palm Beach turned into a fast growing city in the 1920’s. Membership in the Medical Society reached fifty-three. The growing pains were added to by the hurricane of 1928. Most of the doctors’ offices and homes were damaged or destroyed. Kelsey City, now Lake Park was wiped out. Two thousand residents on the southeastern shore of Lake Okeechobee drowned in a twelve-foot tidal wave. The doctors assisted by their wives and women of the community worked for months to assist disaster victims.
After 50 years of service Dr. Van Landingham recorded this message in a report to the Medical Society members: “Little does the doctor of today realize how fortunate he is to walk into a complete hospital with miracle drugs to aid him, consultants in every area of practice and laboratories to assist in diagnosis, rather than having to depend on clinical knowledge or judgment. Unless a doctor has been fortunate enough to have had a glimpse of country practice before moving into an urban area, it must be admitted that he really has lost some of the experiences that were commonplace to the doctor of yesteryear and he is also deprived of that nostalgic feeling that we now enjoy for having lived in that age of hardship; sharing with each family the joy of a new baby’s cry, the sadness and tears of the loss of loved one, and the wishful thinking of what of what we might have accomplished had we not been born thirty years too soon.
Palm Beach County Historical Society
Boca Raton Historical Society
Palm Beach County Medical Society Alliance
Aurea Tomeski, Palm Beach County Medical Society Student Intern
Florida Medical Association