Mary Phylinda Dole, "A Doctor in Homespun"

Every once in a while in book collecting you get a rare find, a book that gives you goosebumps the first time you open it.

One of those rare finds for me was a copy of “A Doctor in Homespun” by Mary Phylinda Dole, signed by the author, which I purchased at a flea market in Northfield, Mass. I think I may have paid an outlandish six dollars. Generally I pay a quarter, maybe a dollar for a book I really want to read.

If I’d known what I’d got ahold of, believe me, I would have paid a whole lot more. Everything about this book delights me from head to toe. Mary Phylinda is an exemplar of everything that is good about the human race.

I lost my copy of her book in a housefire, along with a few other things, but fortunately I had located her great-niece and obtained a copy for my mom.

Mary Phylinda was born around 1870 in Ashfield, I believe — I don’t have the book handy — one of the Franklin County hill towns. She became an orphan at a young age and was brought up in her uncle’s family.

Her description of life on a happy, prosperous family farm in Ashfield is one of those rare first-person glimpses of life in New England in the 1800s that cannot be matched by any work of history. For the historian, it’s the real stuff, a primary source.

Imagine a family that went to the mall once a year and mostly sold stuff. I hope you’ve seen “The Oxcart Man” by Donald Hall if you have kids; it’s a beautiful book. Mary Phylinda’s family was like that, spending all year making things to sell at the fair and then buying one or two precious items. They were dedicated to the opposite of consumerism, which I think is why they were happy.

She was the first graduate of Mt. Holyoke College, and she went on to become a doctor, the way having just been paved for her by groundbreakers like Elizabeth Blackwell, an intrepid soul well worth Googling.

When Mary Phylinda set up her practice in Greenfield in the 1890s, in what is now the children’s wing of the library, she had a visit from the head of the local medical society. On behalf of all his colleagues he welcomed her to the practice of medicine, which says a lot about Greenfield. Many communities would never accept a woman doctor.

One reason she was welcomed into the medical community was that she responded to all the emergency calls from the hill towns, which probably suited the other doctors just fine. She had a sleigh and a carriage and an intrepid horse whose name I forget. Winter and Summer she was all set. She could just take one or the other. The problem was in the Spring and Fall when some roads were packed snow and some were mud.

One of the most tragic childhood diseases of Mary Phylinda’s day was diphtheria. Finding a case of diphtheria was especially heartbreaking for a doctor because there was just nothing you could do.

Mary Phylinda Dole was resourceful enough to find her way to France to work as an intern at the institute of Louis Pasteur, then a very old man. As you probably know, Pasteur’s discoveries were a breakthrough beyond anything ever known in the history of medicine, before or since, all because of a mistake his incompetent assistant made with the samples in the laboratory which I’ll tell you about some day if you’re interested, or even if you’re not.

Mary Phylinda was present when they made the first trials of a diphtheria vaccine and — to make a long story short — it worked! Imagine the thrill of bringing a discovery like that back to America. Think of all the families that would know joy instead of sorrow. She must have been seen as a worker of miracles, which in a way she was.

This stuff gives me goosebumps. I’m going to get the book from Mom so I can post a photo of Mary Phylinda, so stay tuned. I’m also going to post one of Grace Metalious in sneakers, jeans and a plaid wool shirt, at her kitchen table, in the very act of changing the national consciousness.