Green River Star -

By Brie Blasi
Green River Historic Preservation Commission 

A Green River doctor's life remembered

 

Courtesy Sweetwater County Museum

Dr. John H. Gilligan

An auction took place at the historic Gilligan Ranch in Boulder, a few months ago.

It featured many artifacts belonging to the Gilligans and their relatives, who were prominent citizens in early Green River and the surrounding areas. Luckily for the Sweetwater County Museum, a very generous donor, Jonita Sommers of the historic Sommers Homestead, was in attendance and determined to acquire the medical supplies of Dr. John Gilligan in order to donate them to the museum. The items that she donated, including historic medical equipment, medical books and manuals, and physician's records, tell the story of a respected and beloved family doctor and the life he lived here with his family.

Dr. John H. Gilligan was born in Ireland Sept. 13, 1856. He graduated Queens College with a degree in medicine at the age of 21 before coming to the United States in 1878, where he studied American medical methods in New York City. He worked as a physician for the Union Pacific in Rock Springs and Green River.

He then had a short career as a company surgeon for the U.P. in Nebraska before the violence of the 1894 Pullman Strikes encouraged him to leave the U.P. and take up ranching. The call of his medical practice was too great, however, and he soon returned to private medical practice in Green River.

He married Martha Baker in 1891. Martha came from a well-known Green River family who had already established themselves as prominent citizens.

Her parents, both English-born, came to Green River in its early days. Martha herself was said to be the first girl born in Green River in 1873. Her father, William Baker, was one of the first switch engineers in the newly built Green River rail yards but drowned in 1875 when Martha was still a toddler.

Her mother, Martha Scott Baker, then married George Gideon Gravelle, a French-born physician. She studied pharmacy and opened a drug store on Railroad Avenue (it later burned down).

After Gravelle died in 1878, Martha continued to live in the back rooms of the drug store building with her children and third husband, Henry H. Campbell. Campbell, a Civil War veteran and carpenter for the U.P. Railroad, was also a respected figure in town. One of their daughters, Hattie, later married Bill Hutton, who many people today still remember as an influential part of their lives.

Martha Baker Gilligan later reminisced about her early life in a newspaper interview, which centered around her mother's drug store on what was then the main street in town and the heart of local business and social life, Railroad Avenue. She recalled picking yellow wildflowers when they grew where water leaked off the train because no other flowers grew in Green River at that time. It was in also in her mother's drug store that she married Dr. John H. Gilligan in 1891. Their lives together were peppered with both tragedy and joy. Three of their four sons-William, Lawrence and John Clarence-died between infancy and young adulthood.

Their middle son, George E. Gilligan, spent his life with his wife, Ada, on the family ranch in Boulder that his father had established years earlier.

In 1949, Dr. John H. Gilligan was interviewed by the Green River Star as he was approaching his 90th birthday. He had quite a life to reflect upon.

"Western Wyoming's grand old man of the medical profession" was known for wishing his friends and patients "God bless you" and for his generally cheery attitude. But it wasn't just his bedside manner that earned him a place in the hearts of just about every community member. Not retiring until the age of 80, Dr. Gilligan saw just about every type of infirmity and injury possible. In his early career as a young M.D., Dr. Gilligan paid special attention to obstetrics because he recognized the unique needs of mothers and infants in a frontier town.

Accidents associated with the dangerous work in the rail yards surely often called Dr. Gilligan to attention as well. The early coroner's reports are riddled with gruesome deaths of workers and vagrants alike being crushed by trains. With few physicians available, Dr. Gilligan even presided over the coroner's inquest and helped perform the autopsy his own father-in-law, Henry H. Campbell, when he died suddenly in 1894.

As times changed, so did Dr. Gilligan's cases. Just as World War I was ending and Dr. Gilligan's son, George, was returning from his service, the world was facing another tragic and frightening time period. Also known as the "Spanish Flu" or "La Grippe," Dr. Gilligan saw the town through the great influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 that claimed somewhere between 20 and 50 million lives worldwide.

It pandemic killed about 675,000 Americans, leaving few families unaffected. One of the items donated to the museum is Dr. Gilligan's physician's log he was required to submit to the U.S. government for all liquor prescribed as medicine during the Prohibition era of the 1920s. With the advent of new technologies, Dr. Gilligan's cases also began to include injuries from automobile and airplane accidents.

But, his interests did not stop with medicine. He also began raising sheep on a ranch he acquired in Boulder. He also involved himself with the growth of Green River by purchasing land and erecting buildings to spur development. He ran for county commissioner on the Democratic ticket in 1892 and 1902. A broadside from 1902 claimed he was responsible for tearing down the fences at the cemetery, erecting a stable, and having "scattered manure in the silent City of the Dead."

He did not win.

Not least of all his accomplishments, Dr. Gilligan also had a short stint as Green River's sixth mayor from 1901-1902.

Courtesy Sweetwater County Museum

William Hutton and Hattie Campbell pose in front of the Campbell drug store around 1900.

His administration was responsible for connecting the city's sewer system with the U.P. Railroad's to stop raw sewage being dumped directly into the river.

Dr. Gilligan lived in his home on East 2nd North Street until his death in 1949 at the age of 92. He practiced medicine from the Campbell drug store and from his home office for more than 50 years. For the last decade or so of his life, after retiring at the age of 80, Dr. Gilligan liked to stay as active as possible. Whenever he was able, he could be seen walking downtown to visit with friends and neighbors.

He kept chickens and enjoyed tending to them when not reading and reflecting on his long life in service to the people of Green River. Thanks to the recent donation of Dr. Gilligan's belongings, we are reminded once again of his influence on the lives of so many and the development of the town we call home.

 

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