Dr. Clara Shetter Keiser – Medicine During Turbulent Times

The story of Dr. Clara Shetter Keiser, a Berks County woman who practiced medicine during turbulent times in our history, as told by her great-granddaughter, Catherine Shearer, BHC Trustee

“Viola and Walter Shearer were my grandparents and I was recently “reunited” with an artifact found in the attic of the Vinemont house they lived in.

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As pictured above, The Physician’s Perfect Call List and Record, belonged to my great-grandmother, Dr. Clara Shetter Keiser. Starting in January 1919 and ending in 1928, the book intermittently shows the names of patients, amount/debit, and record of narcotics dispensed.

When she started her recordings in the Call List and Record, we were already well into the Spanish flu pandemic (1918-1920) and she lived for another 11 years.  I can only wonder what advice she would be offering to us now!”

Dr. Clara Shetter Keiser (1863-1931), a native of Lebanon County, was “one of the best known medical practitioners of her sex in this section”, as stated in her obituary in the Reading Eagle dated October 6, 1931. “For years she was recognized for her far-reaching activities in the promotion of health and other activities of civic value to the community. Few women, living in this locality, have been as devoted to so many interests outside of those surrounding their own livelihood, and of vital interest to the community, as Dr. Keiser.”

It was also mentioned in the obituary she was one of the first advocates of women’s suffrage in this area.

Clara Shetter graduated in 1882 from the Women’s Medical College, Philadelphia, and served on their staff until moving to Reading in 1886, where she opened an office at Sixth and Washington Streets.  In 1889 she married Dr. James W. Keiser (1860-1904), a well-known local physician, and the son of Hannah Shearer and David Keiser, a Reading carpet merchant and real estate developer.

After her husband’s death in 1904, she continued her career as a practicing physician to support and educate her four children. The three Keiser sons were noted in swimming circles, including the Pennsylvanian Swimming Hall-of-Fame, and the local YMCA, served in the military, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.  Her daughter, Viola Keiser, a 1908 honors graduate of Kutztown Normal School, married Walter J. Shearer, of Vinemont, Pennsylvania.

Scholla: Leeching March 27,1944

There was a time when physicians resorted to leeching patients for many forms of illness, “Alderlassen,” or blood letting was explained in most issues of the almanacs published well into the last century and the art of blood-cupping, though no longer in good respute, is still practiced in some quarters.

Modern readers may be surprised to learn that the leeches which thrived in the streams and marshes of eastern Pennsylvania were considered the most serviceable variety in America in colonial times and leech catching and marketing was once a profitable enterprise in these parts. The writer remembers his boyhood in Adamstown and the many  “bloodsuckers” that had to be contended with in swimming in Muddy Creek; then the smaller streams were infested with them but now they seem to have disappeared along with the wild pigeons.

Later in the 19th century, practitioners of leeching preferred to use a variety imported from Sweden; the European Leech being a hungrier fellow than our native product.

Stock Sometimes Died

Francis A. Ulle, who in 1893, practiced leeching on South Ninth Street in Reading, imported his stock in lots of 100. They came to him packed in a black loam in kegs, especially adapted for the purpose. Many of the reptiles were dead when they reached Ulle and if doctors did not send him a sufficient number of patients the whole consignment died and his entire investment proved to be a lose.

As the practice of prescribing leeching fell into disfavor there was less and less demand for Ulle’s services and he abandoned his business in 1893, or rather he abandoned his side line and stuck to barbering only. In this connection it is interesting to not that barbering and surgery were closely related trades during the Middle Ages – for who was more skilled in handling of knives than the barber? The applying of dressings and bandages also fitted the barber’s trade; even today the red and white stripes of the barber pole are a vestige of the days when the barber applied surgical dressings and the red-white ribbons were symbolic of bandages.

Practice has Disappeared

Generally speaking, Ulle applied leeches to patients only on doctor’s prescription, but occasionally patients who felt that leech cure had served them well the first time, came to Ulle’s shop, long after doctors discontinued recommending such treatment.

There are many details connected with the application of the leech which need no recounting here. We offer this account merely as one more echo of the passing scene.


Freshwater Leech, Macrobdella decora

Source: http://www.fcps.edu/islandcreekes/ecology/freshwater_leech.htm

Scholla: Herbs – (Yarbe) By M. Walter Dundore

Herbs – (Yarbe) By M. Walter Dundore

The Pennsylvania Germans brought the art of herb cultivation with them to Pennsylvania. For untold ages onions, Zwiwwele, had served their forefathers and their salads did not lack allure for the lack of onion flavor. Even the most powerful member of the tribe, the much discredited garlic, Gnowelloch, was considered absolutely essential by the settlers in order to bring out certain salad tastes.

They would not think of Schmierkees without chives, Shnitloch, the mildest member of the onion family. Chives provided mild onion flavor from the earliest spring until frost stopped further growth.

Second only to the onions, the settlers valued parsley, Peterli, an herb which was put to a great variety of uses. The extra curly or double type was used for garnishing, while the single type was strongest in flavor and was used with vegetables, meat, fowl and fish.

Garden thyme, Quendi Tee, was a close competitor to parsley as a great herb for seasoning. This was freely used in stews and clam chowder, in sausages and other meats.

Sage, Salwei, was a favorite for seasoning, its dried leaves making an important ingredient for the dressing of fowl, lamb and veal.

Rue, Raade, was a cure for boils and concocted by brewing a tea from its leaves. Judges, while holding court, kept it on their benches to ward off flies, noxious insects and contagious diseases which were apt to invade the court room with the prisoners.

No housewife thought of boiling beans without a few sprigs of savory, Brunnergreidel, which provided a savory dressing equally palatable with fish, fowl or meat. As an addition to soups and stews it was unequalled, while a judicious use lent additional qualities to salads. Blanched lovage, Laabsdeckei, was also used to flavor soups and salads. Wormwood, Warmet, was esteemed as a reliable remedy for stomach and liver ailments.

Garden at Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum. Source: http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/spring/20792/saving_seeds/1125527
Garden at Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum. Source: http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/spring/20792/saving_seeds/1125527

Scholla: Ginseng Roots in Berks September 21, 1942

Ginseng Roots in Berks 9/21/1942

“There is only one man in the United States that I envy,” spoke Chinese General Pei-Fu-Wu, “and that is Henry K. Deisher.” The wealth possessed by this well-known Berks Countian, that stirred the envy of the Chinese, was a garden of 40,000 ginseng roots, growing in Berks County. To the Chinese the root of the ginseng weed possesses healing powers of great and varied strength. In the hills of Manchuria the natives go out in mass each autumn searching for the roots which contain the elixir of life. The older the roots the better, say the Chinese, and Pennsylvania Roots found mostly in Perry County, are best of all. Modern medicine has not as yet clothed the ginseng with curative powers and its only practical use is as a demulcent. Even then it is not officially recommended.

Henry K. Deisher dug all of his roots in the Blue Mountains and in the back country of Perry County, transplanting them in his home garden in Kutztown until they were ready for market.

When marketing time came Deisher packed his roots in two trunks and set out for the offices of the exporters in New York. His choice of trunks as packing cases was forced by a strike of express men in New York and express companies refused to handle freight. Trunks were baggage and when he reached the Reading Station in New York he was able to hire a wagon. When the driver of the wagon began to move the trunks a group of strikers approached menacingly, but the baggage master explained that it was merely luggage that was being moved.

When the trunks were opened in the headquarters of the wholesalers the prospective purchasers gasped.

“Why the old empress of China would turn in her grave if she could see such ginseng roots,” one of them exclaimed.

Deisher was disappointed at the price he received for his prize roots, even though it netted him almost $5,000. In good humor he accepted the check, declaring that at some later time he would bring some really big ginseng roots. Unfortunately for Deisher, a blight struck his plants the next season and all of them died. (Information largely from Col. Henry W. Shoemaker).

American Ginseng in Pennsylvanian forest. Source: http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/forestry/plants/vulnerableplants/ginseng/
American Ginseng in a Pennsylvanian forest. Source: http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/forestry/plants/vulnerableplants/ginseng/
Henry K. Deisher. Source:  http://berks.pa-roots.com/books/montgomery/d03.html
Henry K. Deisher. Source: http://berks.pa-roots.com/books/montgomery/d03.html