In “The Notorious Dr. Flippin: Abortion and Consequence in the Early Twentieth Century,” Jamie Tallman integrates biography and social history to make a fascinating book.
The first chapter tells of Charles Flippin’s life until 1910. He was born into slavery in 1844 to a white slave owner father and a black slave mother.
While Flippin was serving in the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War, a chaplain taught him to read and write, which opened his life to great opportunities.
After his discharge in 1865, he married and the couple moved to Ohio, where he farmed and practiced medicine by using what he had learned from his farmer and physician father and by apprenticing to a local physician. He also studied at the Bennett College of Eclectic Medicine in Chicago. He graduated in 1881. The couple moved to Hillsboro where he farmed, practiced medicine and founded the Hillsboro College of Midwifery.
In late 1888, they moved to Nebraska where he farmed and practiced medicine in Henderson and other towns until shortly before his death in 1930. In both states, despite his color, he was always highly respected by his patients and the towns’ leaders. He was a mason, socially prominent and became wealthy.
Much of the second chapter of “Dr. Flippin” examines changing attitudes in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries toward the social duty of women to produce children versus their need for birth control and abortion.
For pioneer women, multiple pregnancies and rearing several children led to a difficult, demanding, laborious and exhausting life which many did not want. Whereas in the East, they could call on other women for lore of pregnancy, child rearing, contraception and abortion, in the West, they often were young and isolated and had to get help from midwives and various kinds of doctors.
In the mid- and latter-19th centuries, three disciplines of medical practice of interest to us existed. They were eclectics, allopathics and midwives.
Eclectic medicine was based on Indian and American herbal practices, as well as any other practices that healed patients, hence its name, “Eclectic.” It reached its peak of popularity in the 1880s and 1890s.
Allopathic medicine, which had been practiced since before the days of Aristotle, used techniques which included drugs, bleeding, mercurial compounds and purges. Practitioners founded the American Medical Association (AMA) in 1847. The AMA was an exclusive and power hungry association which would not admit eclectic doctors, women or African American medical doctor’s, midwives, and others to membership and sought to eliminate them altogether so that the white, male medical doctor’s would have all of the business themselves. To do this, they began a campaign to eliminate all abortions, although they quietly kept on doing it themselves. They often enlisted the help of the county attorneys to prosecute others for any offense they could find but particularly for abortions in which the patient died. While today we think of the midwives as only deliverers of babies, at that time, many were actually specialists in women’s reproductive health.
Although the English physician Joseph Lister introduced the practice of sterilizing instruments, hands and clothing in the 1860s, American medical workers were slow to adopt it and women continued to die from infections contracted in childbirth and abortion. Midwives, because they dealt with one woman at a time, were generally cleaner, and transmitted disease less frequently. They were the providers preferred by many women.
The next four chapters deal with these subjects and Flippin’s life after 1910. By then he was 66 years old and his Civil War injury bothered him. Even so, he kept on practicing general medicine, although his preference was women’s problems, particularly abortions.
Because four of his patients allegedly died from abortion related infections over the years, from time to time he moved to new towns where he was always welcomed because medical providers were rare and especially because he made a point of treating poor people who other providers would not touch. As a result, and because of his personality, he quickly became a part of each new town’s elite.
The book’s final chapter begins in 1924. Over the next six years, Flippin faced a series of trials and appeals during which, area people, rich and poor, were very much on his side. Although he always won his cases, the trials, appeals and advancing age wore him down. Eventually, he pled to an abortion related misdemeanor and agreed to give up his license, stop practicing and retire to his farm in Colorado.
Instead, he quietly kept on practicing until he was again called before the courts. After a struggle, he actually retired. He died in 1930 at the age of 86.
Jamie Tallman’s “The Notorious Dr. Flippin: Abortion and Consequence in the Early Twentieth Century” presents the story of how social change affected the life of a brilliant man who achieved far beyond what anyone could have predicted early in his life. The book is well researched, readable and thoroughly interesting.
Christopher Banner is former senior specialist in music at K-State and a Manhattan resident.