He Can Claim First Honor . . . .
Bonham Daily Favorite, June 12, 1994
After Lee's surrender at Appomattox, many a member of the Confederate army came home to desolation, destruction, and a bleak future. Vast areas of Kentucky and Missouri were particularly hit and many families in those areas began to look for a place of new beginning.
One such family belonged to a former surgeon of the Confederate Army, Dr. John S. Saunders. After a year or two of trying to reestablished his practice in Warren County, Kentucky, Dr. Saunders made the decision that Texas held the most promise for his family.
Dr. and Mrs. Saunders and their six children joined a wagon train leaving from Bowling Green and headed for north Texas. After an arduous trek of more than forty days the family with all their belongings arrived in Dallas and Dr. Saunders made the decision to settle there. He began to once again build up his medical practice but he and the family became dissatisfied with their situation, and Dr. Saunders was particularly unhappy with the level of schooling available for his family.
He learned that a respected Kentucky educator whose work was well known to him had recently opened a college in Bonham for the education of both young men and women. Inquiries to Dr. Charles Carlton produced the answer that Dr. Saunder's children would be welcome at the Bonham campus so once again the family moved and upon arriving in the small north Texas town Dr. Saunders soon purchased a large lot just north of the town square on Main Street. There he constructed a home for the family and nearby built a building to house his medical practice.
Soon all the Sunders children were enrolled in Carlton's school. Soon the second son of Dr. Saunders, young Bacon Saunders had mastered all that Dr. Carlton had provided in his curriculum. Bacon Saunders was determined to follow his father's medical profession and unlike many physicians of the day was not content to merely study under the auspices of a local physician. Instead the young man decided to return to his home state of Kentucky to enroll at the University of Louisville Medical College. Upon completing his education at Louisville, Bacon Saunders was awarded the M.D. degree as the top graduate in his class of 183 students.
He returned to Bonham and established his practice with his father at the Main Street offices. Soon after his return home he married on October 31, 1877 Miss Ida Caldwell, daughter of late Presbyterian missionary Tillman A. Caldwell and Mrs. Caldwell.
The medical practice of both Dr. Saunders was wide ranging and it was not unheard of for either doctor to travel many miles on horseback or by buggy to patients who lived in the far reaches of Fannin County. One autumn day in 1879, Dr. Bacon Saunders, then only two years out of medical school received the greatest challenge to his medical expertise.
That morning a rider had reined to a stop in front of the doctor's office and entered with a request for Dr. Saunders to come at once to the bedside of a seriously ill man. Bacon Saunders hitched up his buggy and drove westward across a prairie to a small isolated farmhouse near the small village of Savoy.
In his short tenure as a practicing physician Dr. Saunders had often seen cases of what was called "cramp colic," a condition from which the patient would not recover. When he entered the crude farm house his patient lay writhing on the bed in obvious agony, clutching at his abdomen.
He seated himself at the bedside and felt the man's pulse. IT was much too rapid but the other symptoms were mixed and he was unsure of a diagnosis. After making the man as comfortable as possible he returned to his buggy and started back to his office in Bonham.
He mulled over the facts of the case as he rode homeward and suddenly he remembered a article in a medical journal that he had read some months before. When he reached home he ate the dinner his wife had prepared and then retired to his study to search out the article.
As he read he realized that the symptoms described were much like those of the patient he had left at the farm house. Additionally the article described at length a medical procedure, operation, that had been performed to alleviate such a medical situation.
Less than twenty-five years old with only a brief two years of medical practice caused the young physician to spend the night arguing with himself over whether or not he should risk the man's life with a surgical procedure he had only read about and never experiences.
In the morning he awakened his father and discussed the situation with him. As he lay out all the arguments, pro and con, for his father, the elder physician agreed that Bacon Saunders should proceed with the treatment. The two doctors along with another Bonham physician, probably Dr. R. E. Martin, a friend and close professional associate of the family, started out for the farmhouse.
When the trio arrived at the house they discovered that the patient had worsened during the night. Dr. Bacon Saunders began to explain in detail what he proposed to do and the patient readily assented to anything that would relieve his suffering.
Dr. Saunders had the kitchen cleaned, the table scoured with boiling water and the medical instruments sterilized with the boiling water. A sheet was placed over the table and the patient placed on it. The various accounts of the event, which are recorded, fail to mention the use of any anesthesia, but undoubtedly something was necessary.
As the other two doctors watched at his elbow, Bacon Saunders made the incision along the man's abdomen and saw his first inflamed appendix. Recalling the details printed in the medical journal he quickly excised the organ, did the necessary suturing and quickly and quickly closed the patient.
The man was put back into his bed and the young doctor maintained a sleepless vigil for the next twenty-four hours until he was assured that his patient would survived. On that fateful day Bacon Saunders, Bonham physician, performed the first appendectomy ever performed in Texas and one of the first anywhere. This was the beginning of a brilliant medical career for the young man.
In 1916 Dr. Saunders was paid tribute at a testimonial dinner in Fort Worth. A twenty-five year career was capped when the keynote speaker summed it up with "The first man in Texas to remove an appendix; the first to remove a spleen; along with several other operations to which he can claim first honor, no only as a Texas surgeon, but a nationwide honor."
Fannin County Museum of History
One Main Street, Bonham, Texas