Mountain Life and Work
By RICHARD W. DUKE
Probably no man ever loomed as big in the eyes 'of the eastern Kentucky hill people of half a century ago as Dr. Byrd Stewart. Certainly no present day physician of this country can begin to equal him in the opinion of the few scattered people, now gray with age, who were his patients in the years that saw him unfailingly pursuing his extensive practice.
He was born about 1830 on the headwaters of Cumberland river. He never had more than a common school education, but he was a great reader and lover of books, possessing a large library for his time. His success was due to constant reading. He read not only medicine but ancient and modern history. Wherever he went, crowds would gather and sit or stand for hours to hear him read, or speak on the things he had read. His active imagination made him the most interesting man of his community.
Most of his professional service was rendered in Knott county. But in the seventies he came to Beaver Creek in Floyd county to give assistance in the first epidemic of smallpox there, introducing vaccination and other modern methods of combating epidemics. Through his influence, my brother and I as boys were induced to study medicine. The old doctor was always progressive and many of his theories in practice hold true today.
In my opinion, no man had more love for suffering humanity, and no man devoted his life more to it and received less in return. He seemed to have no care for his personal gain; his only desire was to help someone in distress. White haired residents of the section say that fifty years slipped by with "Doc" traveling miles and miles almost daily, sometimes horseback, more often toiling over vague paths and rough roads afoot with his medicine in a pair of saddle bags on his shoulder. Never when he was physically able to make a trip did he refuse a call. Whether or not his patient could meet a bill never bothered his mind. If he received pay it was all right, and if he did not it was all right. In fact he seldom received any pecuniary reward for his ministrations; when he received pay at all, it was usually a bushel of corn or a piece of bacon. The poorest paid nothing. Hundreds of patients who lay sick with typhoid, then a scourge of the hill-country, recovered as if by miracle under his care. Very seldom, says the aged hillsman of today which knew him, did he lose a case. When he found a case of a serious nature there he remained for days at a time, keeping a tireless vigil by the bedside until there was a change-providing another urgent case did not call him away.
When this remarkable man died in 1913, the hills people felt his loss acutely. The rising generation, of course, seldom hear his name, and would give it little thought if they did; but if some one praises a present day physician in an old mountaineer's presence, he will hear this in reply, "There'll never be another doctor in this country as good as 'Doc.' Stewart."
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