Their Descendants...Their Stories...Their Achievements

Lifting the Mists of History on Their Way of Life

By: Ethelene Dyer Jones

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Dr. Thomas Newton Berry, Mountain Doctor

"If the hat fits, wear it!" might well have been the advice to young medical student Claude Hemphill III from his grandmother, Mrs. Stella Berry Hemphill, as she gave her grandson the black Stetson hat that belonged to his great grandfather, Dr. Thomas Newton Berry, when the younger man entered Emory University School of Medicine in 1986.

It is unlikely that Dr. Claude Hemphill III ever wore the old black Stetson, but it became a beloved symbol to him of the legacy left to him from his ancestor, Dr. Thomas Newton Berry. The younger doctor wrote about the old hat, and told about how it reminded him of his grandfather's service and compassion as a country doctor in Union County following the turn of the twentieth century. The essay by Hemphill won second place in the Emory University School of Medicine's 1990 Class. A copy came into my hands, and I began some avid research to seek to find out more about this doctor of the mountains and how he inspired a grandson to follow in his footsteps in medical studies and practice.

Who was Dr. Berry, and what was his life like as a country doctor?

Thomas Newton Berry (01/31/1870 - 12/11/1927) was the oldest of six children born to John Johnson Berry (1846- 10/12/1921) and Caroline Swim (Swaim, Swain) Berry (1848- 03/08/1923). This family lived in the Shady Grove section of Union County. Thomas Newton's father, John Johnson, was a son of early Union County settlers Elias Berry (1812-1885) and Sarah Johnson Berry (1814-1901). Thomas Newton's mother, Caroline, was a daughter of Enoch and Cynthia Griffis Swim (Swaim, Swain).

Besides Thomas Newton, their firstborn, John Johnson and Caroline Swain Berry had five other children: William Jefferson Berry who married Ila Jane Frady; Martha Lee Berry who married Festus Nelson; James Franklin Berry who married Nora Rich; Mary J. Berry who married Herschell Fields; and Sarah Alice Berry who married Sherman Brown.

Thomas Newton Berry may have been named for relatives, so far as this writer knows. But his father may also have read about the famed English archaeologist, Thomas Newton (1816-1864), who played an important part in discovering one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the mausoleum of Halicarnassus. At any rate, Thomas Newton Berry early-on demonstrated an alert mind and a love for knowledge, much like the English scientist for whom he could have been named.

Thomas Newton Berry married Ora L. Reece, a granddaughter of Solomon Rich, Sr. by his daughter, Elizabeth Rich Reece (her husband's name currently unresearched).

To Thomas Newton and Ora were born five children: Bessie W. Berry (1894) who married Carl Rector; Fernando A. (called "Ferd", 1890) who married Myrtle Coker; Eula M. (1900) who married a McCall; Stella (1907) who married Claude Hemphill; and Christina (1904-1905).

Thomas Newton Berry enrolled in the Atlanta College of Physicians and Surgeons (this later grew into Emory University School of Medicine). He graduated in 1902. He returned to Blairsville to set up his general practice in medicine and served citizens from 1902 through 1927 when he contracted a form of cancer and could no longer continue his practice.

Dr. Berry looked smart in his black Stetson hat, his trademark, to distinguish him from other citizens who wore maybe coonskin caps or "rusher" (straw) hats. Dr. Berry rode astride a stately jet-black horse throughout the mountains to visit his patients. He was there for delivery of babies at $10 per birth. He treated all manner of disease, farm accidents, diphtheria, other contagious diseases, pneumonia. If the farmers had no money to pay the doctor, they would give him corn and grain to feed his horse, live chickens to bear back to Mrs. Ora, potatoes, apples, chestnuts in lieu of money. If they had none of these with which to pay, their bill was conveniently forgotten.

In 1917 when the plague of influenza was rampant, he made house calls with his medical bag, saddle bag and pockets full of medicines he had secured from a pharmacy in Atlanta. Even his most valiant efforts in combating the spread of the disease saw many people, young and old alike, succumb to the disease.

Not only did he make house calls, but patients came from outlying communities to see the doctor in his office in town. Oftentimes, Dr. Berry and his kindly wife, Ora, would give the patient a bed and board for the night at no extra charge, where they could more fully nurse them back to health.

Dr. Thomas Newton Berry died December 11, 1927 and was buried in the New Blairsville Cemetery. His beloved wife, Ora Reece Berry, died four months later on April 16, 1928. The Berry legacy is rich in good deeds and rich memories

Stella Berry Hemphill told her grandson, Claude Hemphill III, in 1986 when she gave him his grandfather's hat (according to the prize-winning essay): " I hope you appreciate it (the hat) and keep it in a special place."

Young Dr. Hemphill wrote of this legacy, and his own "calling"—like that of his grandfather to be a doctor—"I hope (as I start my medical education) to be able to use technological and scientific understanding to improve the treatment of many medical problems. I hope that I can make contributions in research, both basic science and clinical. Yet, I feel that all these things must be tempered with honesty and compassion in the treatment of patients. My great grandfather's hat doesn't fit too well now. As I go along, I plan to break it in and hope it will fit a little better as each year goes by."

c 2008 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published August 28, 2008 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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