Marquette County’s Medical History Explored
Reviewed by Tyler R. Tichelaar
The Macabre to the Mundane: Death, Life, and Medicine in Marquette County Michigan during the Early 1900’s—with Covid 2020 Updates by John Parlin, M.D., reminds me of the fat old medical books my grandmother used to own that looked like the pages were covered with blood cells. That’s just how immense this book is, and I guarantee there is something in it that will interest everyone, plus it’s physically more attractive than those old medical books. It’s 384 pages and 8.5” x 11” in size, but don’t let that intimidate you. It’s not a book you’ll probably want to read from cover to cover, but more like a coffee table or bathroom book to dip into and read a few pages of here and there to find what interests you—and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by just how much interests you. Plus, it will be a great resource to go back to whenever you are curious about medical knowledge of the past or wonder just how dangerous mining really was.
While the book’s primary focus is medical events in Marquette County’s history since 1900, Parlin delivers a lot of background information about the history of medicine from ancient times. He opens with a discussion of the state of medicine in the early 1900s as reviewed in the 1910 Flexner Report. Interestingly, medicine was not considered a reputable profession prior to the twentieth century. At the time of the Civil War, M.D.s were considered “too stupid for classics, too immoral for the pulpit, and too dishonest for the bar.” Fortunately, as medicine advanced, that opinion changed.
The book is full of intriguing general information and facts. For example, did you know that by 1900, urine analysis was standard? The usage of various instruments, from leeches to ear trumpets and stethoscopes, is explored. The history of vaccinations, including for smallpox and polio, is provided. Timelines reflect medical advances over the course of different wars. Countless charts adorn the pages, showing everything from leading causes of death at different time periods—surprisingly, drowning was a major cause of death in Marquette County in the early twentieth century—to detailed charts about mining accidents.
Photographs are profuse throughout; most of them historical or of medical advertisements. A photo of mining scaffolding makes it clear why accidents were so common in the mines. Another rather comical photo shows a car accident from 1915.
While Parlin, at times, goes off into interesting medical tangents, he always veers back to focus on Marquette County. He shares numerous records from Cleveland Cliffs. He reproduces handwritten coroners’ reports reflecting different types of death in the county. Several transcripts of interviews are included of people who testified to how they witnessed people die—deaths that range from electrocution and mining accidents to a prisoner who died by laceration with a snuff box. Locals will enjoy scanning these many historical documents to look for familiar surnames still found today throughout Marquette County. You might even spot one of your ancestors being mentioned.
Native American medicine receives its own section, including a discussion of diseases and causes of death common to Native Americans, such as heart disease and suicide. Traditional healing uses of various plants are explored, and there is even an essay on Ojibway funeral and burial rites.
Of course, the coronavirus pandemic is discussed, and Parlin provides a good summary of its history up to June 2020, when the book was sent to press. He also discusses the 1918 influenza pandemic so readers can make comparisons between the two. Of equal interest for comparison is the discussion of the mid-twentieth-century polio epidemic. Parlin even reveals he is one of the children who survived polio.
Many places of medical interest familiar to Marquette County residents are also detailed, including the Morgan Heights Sanitarium that opened to treat tuberculosis patients, the current Marquette Medical Center, and St. Luke’s and St. Mary’s Hospitals in Marquette. Cemeteries get their mention, as does Bay Cliff Health Camp.
Did you know the first successful C-section took place around the year 1500? Are you curious about the history of venereal disease? Ever wonder how many driver fatalities happened in Marquette County in 1910? You’ll get all those questions (and more) answered in The Macabre to the Mundane. The tremendous amount of research Parlin did is mind-boggling. He spent innumerable hours perusing medical files housed at the Marquette Regional History Center, and he also reached out for assistance to many local historians and experts, including Russell Magnaghi, Jack Deo, and Judge Thomas L. Solka, who is credited as a coauthor. This book highlights a branch of Marquette County history that has received little attention and deserves more, especially in these pandemic days that have made the medical woes of our ancestors feel so much closer to us. Reading it may make you feel we’re not so alone in our current crisis. Our ancestors have been through it all, and we can draw on their strength to continue to endure. Thank you, John Parlin, for giving us an enhanced perspective.
— Tyler R. Tichelaar, PhD and award-winning author of My Marquette and Kawbawgam: The Chief, The Legend, The Man