John Reuben Branscomb: Oldest Practicing Doctor in 1967

by Mike Grim

“I wore out at least 12 good horses over these mountains, and I’ve come home at night with icicles hanging from my ears.”

Probably a few other doctors could have worn out that many horses in terrain like that of Carroll County, where Dr. John Reuben Branscomb was born about a mile from the crossroads of Fancy Gap.

But no other is 104 years old, and no other has dedicated more than half a century to a medical practice there.

According to the American Medical Association’s records, Dr. Branscomb apparently is the oldest practicing physician in the United States, with 69 years of service to the Blue Ridge communities of Virginia and North Carolina.

Dr. Branscomb began his practice in 1899 at the age of 35, one day after he was graduated from Tennessee Medical College at Knoxville, a forerunner of the University of Tennessee Medical Units.

He entered the profession on the advice of a local doctor.  In order to get the funds to attend college, he taught public school for several years.  Two years were spent at the Green Hill School in Surry County, N. C., teaching for $25 a month.

“I had 78 pupils enrolled,” as he recalled.  “These young teachers of today would have had a fit.”

In 1900 he built a colonial-style house on a 240-acre farm just off the Blue Ridge Parkway between Hillsville and Mt. Airy, N. C.  “Old Doc,” as he is called, still lives in the same house with a son and daughter.  His wife died six years ago.

“I have ridden 200,000 miles on horseback,” he says of his active practicing days.  “Where you couldn’t ride I would walk and lead my horse.”

He said that one particular trail, crossing Toe Nail Gap, was so steep “I had to tie my horse and walk” and anyone going down it with a wagon would cut a tree and tie it to the back of the wagon to use as a brake.

In 1916 he started making calls in a new T-Model Ford, which he said he never completely mastered.

In 1913 Dr. Branscomb, a Republican, was elected to the House of Delegates from Carroll County.  He had no time for actual campaigning, but he did advertise once in a local newspaper.

He pledged to support fair and honest elections, free textbooks, longer terms of schools, good roads, the election by the people of all officers, lower taxes and a property qualification for voters.  He also called for an increase in pensions for Confederate soldiers and their widows.

During the 1914 session of the General Assembly he offered one bill to allow certain school districts in Carroll County “to purchase and hold certain real estate.”  The bill was passed 74-0.  He also attended the Extra Session 1915.

In March, 1964, a joint resolution was passed by the General Assembly paying tribute to him for contributing to the medical profession in Virginia.

He has also received a Certificate of Appreciation from the U. S. Selective Service System for 15 years of unpaid service as a medical adviser to his county’s Local Board.

Dr. Branscomb no longer makes house calls, but a few patients still see him at him [sic] home.

Dr. Branscomb has delivered, by his unofficial count, more than 2,600 babies, with a few third generation children receiving their original smack from his hand.  He delivered two babies when he was 11 and one when he was 100.  None of the deliveries was made in a hospital.

Dr. Branscomb, a Primitive Baptist, attributes his long life to his total abstinence from tobacco and liquor — neither of which he will allow in his house.

He still remembers his first case.  “I had to walk for miles and I carried my satchel over my shoulder.

“The patient had a bad case of the itch.”

Source:  Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia), November 26, 1967, page 25


Doctor, 103, Bans more House Calls

Fancy Gap, Va. — Although his old patients continue to come to him for medical treatment, Dr. John Reuben Branscomb has slowed down a bit in recent years and doesn’t make house calls.  He is 103 years old and has been practicing medicine in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina since he graduated from the old Tennessee Medical College at Knoxville, Tenn., in 1899.

Dr. Branscomb was 99 years when he delivered his last baby, and estimates that he has delivered more than 2600 children, many third generation infants being ushered into the world by him as were their parents and grandparents.

(Associated Press)

Source:  Boston Traveler (Massachusetts), December 7, 1966, page 25


Doctor Still Full of zest at 105

by Hank Burchard, LA Times-Washington Post News Service

Fancy Gap, Va. — Dr. John Reuben Branscomb was 10 years older than most of the whippersnappers who graduated with him from Tennessee Medical College.  Now all the other members of the class of 1899 are dead and buried, but Dr. Branscomb at the age of 105 still can whip out a memento and snap out an anecdote.

On a warm clear day with a south wind he still may exorcise a wart or two for his Carroll County neighbors, and there are those here who expect him to deliver is 2,601st baby one of these days (he delivered No. 2,600 during a howling storm in the winter of his 101st year.)

Mostly, of course, being 105½ years old, he sits and reads — without glasses — the 70 years’ worth of accumulated books, magazines and medical literature that litters the two-story gingerbread home he built on a spur of the Blue Ridge in 1900.  And nods.

Sometimes his memory wanders, having an awful lot of ground to cover, and sometimes he sings and sometimes he weeps a little.  Somebody might think this is senility finally coming on, but it may also be the exuberance of a man who often went out over the mountain through Toe Nail Gap, leading his frightened horse, “to see a man more healthy than I was that I knew would never pay me a dime.”  He kept doing this because he once refused to so see a woman and she died.

There’s a lost of zest in the man who once laid Floyd Allen out with a single punch when Floyd challenged him to fight or run for some forgotten reason.  “He started to shuck off his jacket and I have him a left while his arms were tangled.”  This was the same Floyd Allen who a year or so later (in 1912) shot a judge and the high sheriff of Carroll County to death on the courthouse steps in Hillsville.

“Dr. John Reuben,” as he is known hereabouts, never was a fellow to mess with.  He stood over 6 feet and weighed “a good 200 and him never a fleshy man,” as Robert Beaman recalls.  Beaman, who is not young, was delivered by Dr. Branscomb like just about everybody else around here between the ages of 20 and 70.

The doctor still stands straight, but he hasn’t walked much since his 105th birthday last Aug. 12, when he suffered a heart attack after three young addicts burst into the house demanding drugs and money.

If it’s all the same to you, the doctor hasn’t got time to waste answering questions like what does he attribute his longevity.  For the record, he has never drunk nor smoked has [sic] he allowed others to do so in his presence.  Nor has he ever been baptized, although he is a life-long member of the New Home Primitive Baptist Church, because “he never was known to let a drop of cold water touch his face unless it fell from God’s sky,” a neighbor said.

Dr. Branscomb was not born with money and never got much.  He had to work for about 15 years teaching in a dozen different schools to get money to study medicine, which is why he was 35 when he got his M. D.  He seldom charged more than $1 for a normal visit, babies were $5 a crack, and “he told you if the medicine didn’t cure you, you didn’t have to pay for it,” said Lola Kyle, another of his babies, who runs a general store down the road from the doctor’s house.

“He carried his medicine around with him in these huge saddlebags,” Mrs. Kyle said, “and he never had any labels on the bottles.  He said he knew what was in them, and he always tasted the medicine before he gave it to you, so he never killed a patient.  That’s more than most of these young doctors can say.”

Source:  Greensboro Daily News (North Carolina), April 13, 1969, page 28


Physician, 105, Dies in Galax

Fancy Gap (AP) — Dr. John Reuben Branscomb, who at age 100 delivered the last [of] 2,600 babies during his 69 years of medical practice, died Sunday in a Galax hospital at the age of 105.

When Dr. Branscomb retired last year at teh age of 194, he was reputed to be the nation’s oldest practicing physician.

Before changing over to automobiles in the 1920’s, he traveled some 200,000 miles on horseback to treat patients in the mountainous Carroll County area of Southwest Virginia.

Dr. Branscomb’s wife died several years ago.  They had five children.

Source:  Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia), June 3, 1969, page 16

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