Preserving History: Joseph P. Runyan, MD (1869-1931)

Joseph P. Runyan, MD

By Ray Hanley

Born on a farm in Columbia County, Arkansas, Joseph P. Runyan, MD (1869-1931) earned his medical degree in 1890 from Tulane University, specializing in general surgery.  After moving to Little Rock, Dr. Runyon became very active in civic and medical institutions.  He served as secretary of the Arkansas Medical Society from 1901 to 1904, when he was elected president and served in that capacity until 1905.

He gave the keynote address at the organization’s annual meeting held in Texarkana in 1904, and his remarks were in many ways reflective of how the state’s leading physicians viewed Arkansas of the day. Less than 40 years after the end of the Civil War, the state experienced many setbacks in progress that had lasted several decades.

“Some who were wont’ to gather with us are gone, some are prevented from being here, and yet as Providence deals kindly with us, does:

‘The soul’s dark cottage, battered and decayed.
Let in new light through the chinks that time has made.’

“With our state prosperous and improving, with new opportunities constantly presenting themselves, are we as a profession keeping pace with the general advancement? We regular physicians are the representatives of true medicine, because unhampered with any “isms” we are free to use any or all plans or means to relieve suffering or prolong life. Then the question is, will we as custodians of such an important trustworthily sustain our position? We are constantly and rapidly acquiring new thoughts, new knowledge, by which we are the more able to relieve the sick and afflicted; we are living in an age of general advancement.”

Dr. Runyan took note of one reason the meeting’s attendance might have been down. “The number in attendance is not so great as it would have been if the attractions of the World’s Fair at St Louis had not drawn so many away for the time.”  Indeed, 1904 was the year of the big fair in the adjoining state of Missouri.

The address celebrated the progress of the Society. “I rejoice to say there are only 15 counties of our 75 in the state that singly or in association with other counties, have not formed a medical society. Further, we have each of the ten Councilor Districts of the state organized.”

Dr. Runyan had harsh words for doctors in the state who didn’t participate in organized medicine. “The man who keeps out of the Society, or is but a half-hearted supporter of the Society, is like the stone in the pothole, the longer he stays there the less he grows, yet the smaller he grows, the greater he thinks himself to be. Because of the decrease in size, he has more room to play around.  The doctor is like the rough diamond, he has to rub against his kind to bring out the luster.  In the Society, he rubs against his fellow and becomes a polished diamond.”

The doctor also made references to physicians’ involvement in politics and the economy of the state. “We are essentially an agricultural people but are becoming more and more urban, hence many problems arise.  While doctors are not considered politicians, yet we owe it as good citizens to aid in adjusting these problems. As physicians, we know what should be embodied in the laws enacted for the preservation of the health and lives of the people.” President Runyan took aim at state lawmakers. “Our State Board of Health is unable to do any work on account of a lack of funds, the legislature not having made any appropriation,” he said.

Dr. Runyan made mentioned the special monitoring of physicians in Hot Springs where sometimes doctors, or those claiming to be doctors, made their living prescribing the thermal baths and drinking the spring waters. “In June 1903, under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior, a board of medical examiners was appointed at Hot Springs to examine and license those who prescribe the waters and baths of the springs. It will tend very much to elevate the profession of the state and do a great deal to prevent quacks from imposing upon innocent people who resort to Hot Springs.”

Dr. Runyan discussed the mental health challenges of the state in ways that would be offensive and uniformed by today’s medical knowledge, but likely match the beliefs of 1904. “Our State Lunatic Asylum is overcrowded and has a great number of incurable insane inmates.  These poor unfortunates could be much benefited in health and comfort by having them put on a State Insane Farm in some high, healthy part of the state, besides giving more room and a better chance of recovery to those who may hereafter be confined in the asylum.  We, as physicians, should educate the people as to the necessity of putting insane people in the asylum as soon as insanity is developed. I have visited the asylum, fully examined it, and know that it is well and humanely conducted.  The legislature should pass a law allowing insane patients to be used by the medical department of the University as clinical material in instructing students I the college, that they may be better enabled to treat insanity.”

Dr. Runyan’s residence on South Schiller Street in Little Rock still stands today.

The challenges of tuberculosis were also discussed.  “Many states are establishing state hospitals for the treatment of those afflicted with tuberculosis.”  It would be another six years before Arkansas opened its Tuberculosis Sanatorium at Booneville in 1910.

In 1911, he founded the private St. Luke’s Hospital which was once located at 20th and Schiller Street in Little Rock.  He also had served as the president of the State Board of Health and dean of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, which later merged with the University of Arkansas Medical College in 1912. Dr. Runyan passed away in 1931, and his home at 1514 South Schiller in Little Rock still stands today.