Vol. 11


Coal Miners’ Doctor

c. 1920s; Harlan County, Kentucky, USA

My great-granddad Harry King Buttermore, Jr. (whom I will call “Granddaddy”), grew up in a coal-mining town — Harlan, Kentucky — in the early 1900s. My great-great-granddad Dr. Harry King Buttermore was the family physician for four mines in Harlan County. His fee was $2.50 per family per month. This included office visits, house visits, and any medication needed. Surgeries and childbirth were done for an additional fee. He worked eighteen to twenty hours a day. In the 1920s doctors made approximately $10,000 a year.

The store in the mining camp was called a “commissary.” In addition to a store, the commissary included a post office, a barbershop, and a meeting place. There was even a movie theater located in the commissary.

Granddaddy was very interested in medicine. He liked to assist his dad every chance he got. He would sterilize the surgical equipment. He would also help during surgeries when needed. One time there was a tonsillitis outbreak in the mining camp. By 8:00 a.m. there were twenty-one children waiting in line to have their tonsils removed. Granddaddy was fourteen years old at the time. He helped hold the children still while they were put to sleep. Dr. Buttermore would remove the tonsils and adenoids, and extract any bad or baby teeth. If the patient was a boy, he would circumcise him as well. All of this would take only about ten minutes.

Dr. Buttermore also loved delivering babies. He delivered over 5,000 babies in his sixty years of practicing medicine. Many times the parents of the babies he delivered asked him to name the babies. If he couldn’t think of a name, he would name them one of his own children’s names. Granddaddy said there were many kids named “Harry” that he grew up with!

When Granddaddy was sixteen, he was asked to assist with a surgery on a man who smashed his foot in a mining accident. Granddaddy was asked to give the anesthetic to keep the patient sleeping during surgery. Granddaddy got so interested in the surgery that he lost track of how much anesthetic he was giving the patient. Evidently it was too much, and they almost lost the patient. Dr. Buttermore had to slap the patient several times to wake him up. Many years later, that same man went to work for Granddaddy in the mines. Granddaddy said that he was a lazy, sorry worker, and Granddaddy joked that he should have taken the man out of his misery during surgery. Of course, he was only kidding!

Dr. Buttermore and his wife, Kate, had seven children, and thirty-nine grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Many of them have careers in medicine, thanks to Dr. Buttermore’s legacy and these stories of the past. My great-granddad Harry is still alive at age ninety-seven. He loves to tell stories, and I am thankful to be able to put some of them in writing.

Mary Frances Blount; North Carolina, USA



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