SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Back when doctors made house calls!

Members of the Wilson family served Ketchikan for more than 60 years


July 25, 2020
Saturday PM

(SitNews) Ketchikan, Alaska - For more than 60 years, health care in Ketchikan was spelled with a "W," as in Wilson.
From the 1930s into the mid-1990s, members of the Wilson family, Arthur Senior, James and Arthur Junior practiced in Ketchikan. Twenty-five years after the last Wilson, Arthur Junior, retired the main PeaceHealth Clinic building in town is still called the Wilson building in honor of the family.
The story of how the Wilson doctors came to Ketchikan begins more than 7,200 miles and 122 years away.
Arthur N. Wilson Sr. was born in Miraj, India in December of 1898. His father, also a doctor, was a medical missionary for the Presbyterian Church at a large medical facility 200 miles south of Bombay (now Mumbai).

jpg Back when doctors made house calls!

 From left to right, Dr James Wilson, Dagmar Wilson, Dr. Arthur Wilson Sr, Dr. Arthur Wilson Junior.
Credit: Wilson Family Photo

Wilson stayed in India until his family moved back to the United States in 1910 when his father contracted typhoid fever and pleursy.  Dr. Wilson recovered, but when the family moved back to India - where they would stay until 1925, Arthur remained with relatives in Colorado.
He would go to Colorado College and the Rush Medical School, where his father had graduated from in 1898. Then Arthur would intern at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. It was there he met his future wife, Dagmar, who was from Wisconsin and was doing graduate social services work at the hospital.
He then spent a year in Warroad, Minnesota near the Canadian border.  In a 1982 oral history, Wilson said it "35 degrees below zero, all winter long" in Minnesota and he was happy to move his family out to Seattle where he did contract work for logging companies. mostly on the Olympic Peninsula near Port Ludlow.
In 1930, he ended up in Alaska, working for mines at both Latouche and Kennicott.

"They had 250 miners there (Kennicott) when I was there," Wilson said, in the 1982.  The oral history recently donated to the Tongass Historical Society Museum by his granddaughter, Kathy Paulson. "We had an eight-bed hospital, three nurses, a little x-ray with overhead wires, you had to be on alert every time you used the X-ray and be sure no one ran into a wire."
In 1933, the Kennicott mine shut down because of low copper prices and Wilson went to Seattle but soon ended up back in Alaska, in Ketchikan. He would stay in the First City for the next 50 years.
Wilson said that in 1933, during the Great Depression, there were no jobs in Seattle, even for doctors. A medical-supply salesmen he met told him that Dr. John Beson was looking to leave Ketchikan and there would be an opening there. He jumped at the chance, especially after talking to drug store owner Harry Race.
"Wilson, go to Ketchikan," he said Race told him. "They are set with fishermen there. Ketchikan will pay their bills. Maybe they don't make any money this winter.  They may keep you waiting till next winter. But there are four kinds of fishermen and at least two of them will have some money. If the seiners don't, the halibut fishermen do. Go down there. So that is how I landed here, anyhow."
Wilson joined Dr. Harvey Ellis and Dr. J.H. Musterd as the doctors in the town of roughly 3,000 people.
"We made lots of house calls," Wilson said. "It worked out just like Race said."
Later in the 1930s, Dr. Henry Turner and Dr. Dwight Kramer came to Ketchikan as well. Kramer would serve in in Ketchikan into the early 1960s, Wilson said.
Dr. Louis Salazar and Dr Ralph Carr also came to the community during the 1940s, both with the Indian Health Service, Wilson said.
Wilson said that initially the local doctor business consisted of house calls and treatment of the sick and injured in the local hospital. He said it wasn't until Ketchikan grew again the 1950s to a town of more than 5,000 that office visits became more the norm, because house calls were too time consuming and more patients could be seen in a day with office visits.
Wilson said he had always favored house calls.
"I would have thought it was too much of an ordeal for the patient (to come into the office)," he said. "Yet, I did it myself a few times and (I realized) it didn’t hurt me."
Another challenge, Wilson said local doctors faced, was having to occasionally go out to remote logging camps to operate on people who had been seriously injured in the woods and would not survive the trip into town. He said it was hard having to operate on people on tables. He specifically remembered two different trips "into the woods" to removed ruptured appendixes,
"Both were in the summer," he said. "It had been raining so that the muskeg was knee deep in water. Each camp was a good two miles from the beach so if they had tried to carry the patient to the beach they would had to keep him on the stretcher with all that motion and he would be subjected to (that) for the two miles getting him down to the airplane. So, it was really safer for the patients to operate right there (in camp) than to try to move him. You didn't do anything more than you had to."
Wilson said a particularly challenging time in Ketchikan was an outbreak of polio in the early 1950s. In 1950, he said, there were 18 cases of polio and three related deaths. In 1951, there were only three cases and no deaths. But in 1952, there were 88 cases and two deaths. He said an "iron lung" was flown into Ketchikan to help with the treatment some of the patients ended up needing.
There was also a diptheria outbreak in the early 1960s, that resulted in quite a few positive tests but no deaths. Wilson remembered an out-of-town researcher trying to gauge how people were affected and not getting good numbers until he started visiting people in bars and testing them at the bar stools. The infected number was more widespread than thought.
Wilson said that in general health care in Ketchikan in those years was significantly better than it was in similar-sized communities elsewhere.
"We'd have remarks some of these (Outside) doctors whom we send patients to would say 'well, we are glad this guy go into your hands up there,' Wilson said. " He might have gone in Poduck, Washington or a city the same size as this and been whole lot worse off.  We had excellent medical care here."
In the interview, Wilson said that even though his father was a doctor, he didn't initially want to be one, but that by then - in 1982 - he couldn't imagine spending his life any other way and that he was proud both of his sons had followed him into the profession.
Arthur Wilson Senior retired from medicine in 1982 and passed away in 1984.
He was twice honored by the state medical association for his community service and as physician of the year. He was also honored by the state legislature shortly before he died. In 1977, he was honored by the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce as Citizen of the Year.
More than 35 years after his death, Arthur Wilson Sr. is still contributing to the Alaskan medical community. He left a bequest to the American Medical Association that funds the Arthur N. Wilson scholarship, a $5,000 grant that goes to a Southeast high school graduate studying medicine.
His older son. James was born in 1928 in Tacoma. He was a doctor in Ketchikan for 30 years from 1960 to 1990.
“Since I was three, I expected to be a doctor,” James Wilson told the Ketchikan Daily News when he retired in 1990. “It never entered my mind to be anything else. I never regretted it.”
James Wilson was five when the family moved to Ketchikan in 1933. He was an Eagle Scout and worked as a paperboy for the Ketchikan Chronicle. He graduated from Ketchikan High School in 1945 at age 16 and attended Willamette University. He worked his way through college by hand trolling with his brother Art.
He received his medical degree from University of Oregon. At Willamette, he met his wife Betty. In Ketchikan, they had three daughters, Kathy, Susan and Laura.
He interned at Northwestern University, served as a flight surgeon in the Air Force and spent several years at St. Vincent Hospital in Portland.
In 1960, he rejoined his father, back in Ketchikan.
“The really neat thing in Ketchikan is that you get to know the people,” James Wilson told the Daily News in 1990. “I have patients my father took care of. I’ve known then for years. This has been a very good place for us.”
In the article about his retirement, James Wilson noted how much the practice of medicine had changed since he and his father first started practicing together in an office in what is now the Wells Fargo building Downtown. The main thing was how much more expensive and more complex, especially when it came to medical paperwork in 1990 than in 1960.
Jim Wilson was also involved in Rotary and was a mainstay in the Ketchikan sailboat community, often taking part in the Wednesday night races on the Misty Isle and later the Joyeaux, Taylor's Landing and the Betticat (after he retired to Washington).
His daughter, Kathy Paulson, said recently that her Dad was also determined in his free time to make sure his daughters grew up loving the outdoors through boating and trout fishing. He was an avid hunter and once took a mountain goat that was listed by Boone and Crockett. 
"He loved to ski and hauled his family out to Ski Corner (near Lake Harriett Hunt) and later Smithers so they could learn too," Paulson said. 
Paulson said that Dr. Jim enjoyed talking about his work with his family.
"He would sit down to dinner (when not at the ER) and speak about the different surgeries he loved and found interesting (in vivid detail at the dinner table)," Paulson said. "And he expected us to be fascinated as well. He loved old time medicine where his surgical skills were tested most. Open gall bladder surgery was his favorite."
But there were also many times that work intruded upon family life.
"Many memories of Dad include sitting down to dinner, having the phone ring and him leaving to the Emergency Room," Paulson said. "In those days doctors covered their own patients in the ER. He was rarely home. Once on a camping trip to a little lake a float plane circled over meaning Dad needed to hike down to salt water because they needed him at the hospital. He hiked back up in the morning. It was a long night for our Mom. For many years Dad was the only surgeon in town so he had a big responsibility. Sharing him with the community was hard, but so important. He loved serving the community with his dad and brother."
He belonged to the United Methodist Church, Rotary, Cirque, Toastmasters and the Young Republicans. He also loved to play bridge, Paulson said. He was a doctor for the Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad as well.
Dr. Jim also served as chief of staff at the Ketchikan General Hospital.
After retirement, Jim and Betty moved to Shelter Bay, Washington and he focused on his other great love, painting. He was a member of the Art League North. He died in 2012 at 83.
Arthur Wilson Junior, was born in 1932 at the Kennicott Copper Mine.
He was delivered by his father in the first aid room of the mine, because of a snowstorm preventing his mother’s exodus to another facility.
Growing up he attended Main School, where a generation later all three of his children, Nancy, Joan and Robert were students.  Like his older brother, he was also an Eagle Scout. At Kayhi he was on the high school football team which played teams from Prince Rupert and Bellingham.
After graduation from high school in 1950 he also attended Willamette University and after graduation, the University of Oregon Medical School.
While in medical school he met and, in his senior year, married Sharon after she had graduated from the Good Samaritan School of Nursing. After graduation he served a one-year internship at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Portland, Oregon
He then served two years at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Oregon as a Psychiatric Resident.  He then served two years as an internal medical resident at Good Samaritan Hospital in Portland, Oregon. Thru his last three years of training he served as a medical officer in the Oregon National Guard and continued his service in the Alaska Army National Guard.
“I came back to Ketchikan in September of 1963 and began practice (with his brother and father at the family office in the NBA building,)” he said recently from his home in Boise, Idaho. “I remember I had two emergency flights the first fall and many more emergency flights through my years of practice.”
Two years after he came home, the Wilsons were involved in one of the most dramatic events of the decade, an avalanche at the Granduc Mine near Hyder that killed 26 miners in 1965.
“We got the call in the afternoon and my brother Jim left with two large ice chests full of medicine from I.V. fluid and simple splints to bandages and narcotics for pain relief,” Arthur Wilson said. “He was taken to the Granduc by Ken Eichner in a helicopter which ultimately ran into a fog bank preventing them access to the accident site, I followed in a float plane with Don Ross as a pilot, landing in the ice choked Chickamin River. I spent the first night in a trapper’s cabin (no sleeping bag of course), the next morning a USCG helo came in and whisked me up to the devastated mine site where my brother had preceded me and started to treat the many injured miners. As the day went by we were able to get them to Ketchikan for care.”
After the Wilson brothers returned to Ketchikan to continue treating the badly injured miners, the most dramatic event of the rescue unfolded.
More than 75 hours after the avalanche, a mine carpenter from Finland named Einer Myllya was pulled from a collapsed building under the snow, barely alive.
He was brought to the Ketchikan hospital.
“Union Carbide Corp immediately responded by sending a technician and a decompression chamber to Ketchikan to aid in his recovery,” Wilson said. “His response was dramatic to the hyper baric oxygen treatments and I’m sure helped prevent more amputations than he would have had to endure. I remember accompanying him to Vancouver General Hospital for further care a few weeks later.”
Myllya’s story was covered in the national media and Associated Press photos of Arthur Wilson and Myllya ran in newspapers nationwide.
Arthur Wilson said returning to Ketchikan to practice was easy for him.
“I cherished, loved and admired my Dad, I never knew anyone as kind and filled with a with love for all mankind, a very serious competent physician and a great teacher of all things,” Arthur Wilson said. “It was easy for me to return to Ketchikan because I was very happy there growing up and looked forward to returning. Continuing my father’s tradition we all made house calls if the problem seemed simple and if time allowed.”
He said that being a doctor in a small, but active, town like Ketchikan meant there was always plenty to do.
“I did what I was trained to do and worked as hard as I could and asked for help when I needed it,” he said. “For many years after returning to Ketchikan, before I went to sleep at night, I reviewed every patient visit to be sure that my treatment had been correct and nothing needed to be changed.”
But serving Ketchikan for three decades left limited time for other things, he said.
“I did some wood carving and carpentry,” he said. “Most of the time I was too exhausted to do ‘much of anything.’ I read historical novels. I talked to our children about their activities and most of all I enjoyed talking to my wife.”
He said that his wife was a major factor in his more than three decades as a Ketchikan doctor.
“Fortunately for me, my wife adapted perfectly to Ketchikan and later, when the children were in school, served as a nurse at the Wilson Clinic,” he said.
In 1994, he retired. He and Sharon moved to southern Washington. But they moved back to Ketchikan and stayed 10 more years in retirement. Finally, they moved to Boise.
“It is easier to travel to see the kids,” he said. “But we miss our Alaska home every day.”Back when doctors made house calls!




On the Web:

Columns by Dave Kiffer

Historical Feature Stories by Dave Kiffer



Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Dave at

Dave Kiffer ©2020

Publication fee required. ©

Representations of fact and opinions in comments posted are solely those of the individual posters and do not represent the opinions of Sitnews.

Contact the Editor:

SitNews ©2020
Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska

 Articles & photographs that appear in SitNews are protected by copyright and may not be reprinted without written permission from and payment of any required fees to the proper sources.

E-mail your news & photos to

Photographers choosing to submit photographs for publication to SitNews are in doing so granting their permission for publication and for archiving. SitNews does not sell photographs. All requests for purchasing a photograph will be emailed to the photographer.