“Dr. Jim” Reminisces

By Jeff Whitten


Dr. James H. Smith, known as “Dr. Jim,” spoke to the McNairy County Historical Society last Tuesday in Selmer about his family history and how the practice of medicine has changed in the half-century he has been involved in it.

His mother’s family, the Hagys, came from North Carolina and settled near Shiloh. His middle name is Hagy. They had a store on Hagy Store Road, which is now Race Path Road, in Selmer. The store was located where the road forks between Race Path Road and Connie Smith Road.

Smith’s grandparents lived near the store, and he said he used to have Sunday dinner with them after church. “It took me a long time to figure out why the chicken has never been as good and, of course, one reason it was so good is that she went out there in the yard and got them chickens right before we got there,” he joked.

His father’s family, the Smiths, moved from the Pulaski area in Giles County to the area between Bethel Springs and Finger.

His grandfather was also named James Smith and was a doctor. He used to ask his Aunt Minnie about her grandfather, and she told him she didn’t know much about him.

“I thought until I was an adult that he might have been a horse thief,” Smith said. 

Smith eventually found out that his great-great grandfather fought with Col. Hurst in the Union army.

“Aunt Minnie was born in 1883, and so she at seven years later, probably went to school down there at Falcon. That would have been 25 years after the Civil War ended, and I’m sure there was some hard feelings. They probably used to kid her, ‘Your granddaddy was a Yankee.’ That may have been the reason she never told me about that,” Smith said.

When he was a boy, Smith helped out at the Smith Clinic in Selmer where he has practiced medicine for the past half century.

“I remember one time I cut my foot, and after that I never did go barefooted anymore. Dr. Ernest had to fix that with clamps and we didn’t have any numbing medicine back then or any Novocaine or anything. So that’s one of the wonders of medicine is that we’ve got ways to deaden people now,” he said.

Smith said he believed the clinic opened around October 1941. He did his internship at the Roanoke Memorial Hospital in Virginia, a receiving hospital for all polio patients.

“We would, in the afternoon, a lot of times, [at] five or six o’clock have children brought to the emergency room to be admitted from various places there. Sometimes they would be admitted in the afternoon, and then at twilight the next morning, they would be dead,” Smith said.

While Smith was at Roanoke, they began to give the Salk vaccine, the first vaccine for polio. “Believe you me, I was glad to give it, and glad to get it,” he said.

Since the Salk vaccine was from a killed virus, there was controversy among the medical research community because it only gave immunity for a short period of time. “But at least it got us by,” Smith said.

Later, the Sabine vaccine was invented. This vaccine was administered in sugar cubes. “Some of y’all may remember giving your children that,” he said.

This was an attenuated or crippled virus. “It’s been successful and pretty much locked out polio,” Smith said.

However, this vaccine does on occasion give people polio, Smith said. There have been some malpractice suits in the news brought by some of these patients.

“There’s been a few unfortunate victims that did get polio and probably still will and still do, but nevertheless that was a terrible disease, and that’s just one example, as far as I’m concerned, of the miracle of not having to put up with that anymore,” Smith said.

Swimming pools were one of the places where polio was transmitted, Smith said. Doctors would not take out tonsils in the summertime because it comes into the respiratory system. “If your tonsils are took out, and all that’s raw, and if you breathe it in or are exposed to it, you could get it,” Smith said.

Doctors still made house calls when Smith first started his practice. He told a story of making one to Chewalla to a man who had congestive heart failure. He gave the patient a shot of a diuretic, which was all they could do at the time. It took the drug 24 hours to work.

“That made it about useless as far as that was concerned,” Smith said. Now they have a drug that will work in 15 minutes.

“He survived that because he had good genes,” Smith said.

Antibiotics are one medical miracle Smith has seen in his years as a doctor. “Of course, all of us know about antibiotics and doctors overuse them.  I’ve overused them and so on, but it is wonderful,” Smith said.

Smith said that before sulfa drugs, “If you got pneumonia, only the Lord saved you.”

The medical profession has now wiped out smallpox and typhoid fever and offers protection against mumps, measles and chickenpox, he said.

Smith told of a house call he made to a woman near Finger who had asthma. She had taken several shots of adrenalin for her condition. “You know asthma don’t kill you,” he told the woman.

“I’m dying, I’m dying,” the woman said. The woman did die in a few minutes, Smith said.

“So I learned not to make statements like that,” Smith said.

Smith never saw a case of rabies in his practice, but he and his brothers did have to take the shots when they were small. “I was pretty young and I kind of cried after two or three shots,” he said.

“I think I’m the one that come home, and that little ol’ puppy was staggering all over everywhere and slobbering and had all the signs of that. So I told my mother and she called Bill Smith, and Bill come down there, and he shot it in the head,” Smith said.

Smith said that James Eason, brother of William Eason, did the liver transplant for Apple head Steve Jobs.