Thursday, March 31, 2016

Novelist & Newspaper Columnist Vardis Fisher [otd 3/31]

Vardis Fisher.
Bonneville County Historical Society.
Vardis Alvero Fisher, best known for his Western-themed novels, was born March 31, 1895 in Annis, Idaho. (Annis is about 4 miles north of Rigby.) He grew up in that area before going off to school at the University of Utah. After receiving his Bachelor's and Master’s degrees there, he earned a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1925.

From 1925 to 1931, Fisher worked as an English professor at the University of Utah and then New York University (NYU). While at NYU, he met Thomas Wolfe, who was an Instructor there. (Wolfe's literary fame, for Look Homeward Angel, would come later.) They remained friends until Wolfe's untimely death in 1938. Fisher taught some at Montana State University before becoming Director of the Idaho Writer's Project. He stayed with the Work Projects Administration effort from 1935 to 1939. After that, he devoted his full time to writing.

Fisher’s first published novel, Toilers of the Hills, appeared in 1928, about the time he took his position at NYU. His second, Dark Bridwell, followed in 1931. Set in pioneer Idaho, a milieu Vardis knew well from personal experience, these books present their settings with a level a verisimilitude that stamped all of Fisher’s work. Yet the power of these novels lies in his examination of how the hard, primitive environment shaped the character of the people who tried to make a life there.

Considering the magnitude of his typical themes, Fisher was an extraordinarily productive writer. He published thirty-seven or thirty-eight (bibliographies disagree) novels, most of them of considerable heft – many run over 400 pages. Besides those, Vardis published a half-dozen non-fiction volumes, some short stories and poems, numerous essays, and – for about thirty years – regular newspaper columns. As is often the case with highly prolific writers, critics consider his novels "uneven" – a judgement I would have to agree with. (Few writers hit a home run every time.)
Warner Bros. publicity image.

At his best, he received favorable comparison with such literary giants as William Faulkner, Thomas Hardy, and Thomas Wolfe. Personally, I think such views fail to give Vardis due credit. Fisher’s best material is every bit as powerful and insightful as the best of the “giants” – and far more readable. (I’m not a big fan of episodic, "stream of consciousness," or "inner turmoil" novels that have little or no plot.)

His popular legacy lies in the now-common western history and fiction style that features "naturalistic" or "nitty-gritty" detail buttressed by historical fidelity. At its best, the style neither glosses over the pain and violence of frontier life, nor exaggerates it for shock value. Thus, Fisher’s western-themed books are still both very readable, and instructive.

Ironically, Vardis may have succeeded too well. Some current reader/reviewers, not understanding the context, fault his themes as having been “done to death,” and seem to expect even more blood and feces. But the situations have been done to death because Fisher popularized them. In fact, Fisher's novel Mountain Man (1965) provided much of the script material for the hit movie Jeremiah Johnson. As for the “realism,” I’m not sure the recent “extreme-nature” approach is that much of an improvement over Fisher’s treatment.

For the last thirty years of his life, Fisher lived in a home he built himself near Hagerman, Idaho. He died in July 1968. Unfortunately, few of Fisher’s works are available today, except as now-costly volumes from the original print runs. And that’s a shame.
References: Richard J. Beck, Famous Idahoans, Williams Printing, (© Richard J. Beck, 1989).
Tim Woodward, Tiger on the Road: The Life of Vardis Fisher, Caxton Printers, Caldwell, Idaho(1989).
Guila Ford, Elizabeth Jacox, "Vardis Fisher, 1895-1968," Reference Series No. 1138, Idaho State Historical Society (January 1996).

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Medical Researcher and St. Luke’s Chief Surgeon Warren Springer [otd 03/30]

Dr. Springer. J. H. Hawley photo.
Eminent Boise physician Warren David Springer was born March 30, 1864, near Toronto, Canada. He received a college degree and then went on to medical school at Trinity College in Toronto. After graduating with his medical degree, he took additional courses at the College of Physicians of Ontario.

Springer ran a practice near Toronto for a time and then moved to Ogden, Utah. After a relatively brief stay there, he opened a Boise office in 1892. Noted for his skill as a surgeon, Springer developed a thriving practice in Boise. According to Hawley's History, "He was, moreover, a close and discriminating student of the science of medicine and kept in touch with the latest researches and discoveries."

That interest worked both ways. Several Boise doctors, including Springer and his partner, are collectively credited with the first written, clinical description of "rocky mountain spotted fever." [Blogs, Aug 21 and Oct 16.] The reports detailed the typical symptoms: crushing headaches, “grievous” joint and muscle pain, and the characteristic red spots.

The physicians described the course of the disease, which can last up to two weeks after the appearance of the first definitive symptoms. In severe cases, convalescence may take weeks or months. They reported fairly low fatality rates among Idaho sufferers, perhaps due to mis-diagnosis. The symptoms resemble the more common typhus and not all patients develop the distinctive spots.

Overall, spotted fever killed as many as 25-30% of those infected before antibiotic treatments became available. (Fatalities still run 3-5%, being highest for older patients.)

Besides his private practice, Dr. Springer served as one of the physicians for the Idaho Soldiers’ Home [blog, May 23] in Boise. In 1898, Springer volunteered for service during the Spanish-American War. As regimental surgeon, Major Springer served in the Philippines with the First Idaho Regiment. Like the regiment, he returned to Idaho in September 1899.
St. Luke's horse-drawn ambulance. City of Boise.

Some time in 1900-1902, the Right Reverend James B. Funsten, Episcopal Bishop of Idaho, began to promote a new medical facility in Boise. Dr. Springer, “a close personal friend,” helped found St. Luke’s Hospital, which opened in 1902 as a modest cottage with six beds. Springer became the hospital’s Chief Surgeon, a position he held at the time of his death.

Dr. Springer served as Secretary of the Idaho board of Health for a time, and belonged to several national, state, and local medical societies. In 1903, he helped found the Boise Medical Association, an affiliate of the American Medical Association, and became its first Vice President. Springer was also elected to a term as Ada County Coroner. And, when the Boise City Council created the position of City Physician, they selected Warren to fill that slot (Idaho Statesman, September 11, 1900).

In 1907, Warren’s younger brother, John Scott Springer, joined his practice. John, also born in Canada, had practiced for a year in Emmett, Idaho, before spending eight months in an internship in Chicago.

Unfortunately, the brothers had little time together. In October, 1909, Warren died a day or so after suffering a major heart attack. The death of the relatively young, well-liked doctor prompted an outpouring of shock and grief. The Statesman noted (October 23, 1909) that “The casket … was literally buried in flowers.” Physician friends came from all over southwest Idaho and “The nurses of the city attended in a body.”
References: [Brit], [French], [Hawley]
“Boise (Idaho) Medical Association,” Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 41, No. 11, American Medical Association, Chicago (Sept 12, 1903).
James F. Hammarsten, “The contributions of Idaho physicians to knowledge of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever,” Transactions of the American Clinical and Climatological Association, Vol. 94 (1983) p. 27–43.