Tuesday, January 17, 2012

More On Bonesetter Reese

We've written before on John D. "Bonesetter" Reese--one of the most fascinating figures in sports medicine. Reese fixed aches and injuries with his hands. As we wrote in our first post, going back to a source contemporary to John Reese, Norman D. Mattison, M.D., shed some light on the bonesetter practice when he wrote “Bone Setting and Its Modern Revival,” published in the 1916 New York Medical Journal, Volume 104. Mattison quoted another authority, W. P. Hood, who said that bone setting “is the art of overcoming by the sudden flexion or extension any impediments to the free motion of joints that may be left behind after the subsistence of the early symptoms of disease or injury.”

Bonesetter Reese arrived from Wales with his particular set of skills in 1887 to find work in Youngstown. Reese was a young orphan boy who grew to become an ironworker and learned the medical trade of "Bonesetter" from a neighbor and ironworker named Thomas Jones. Jones himself is a very interesting character as described in Child of Moriah: A Biography of John D. "Bonesetter" Reese by David L. Strickler.

In Rhymney, Wales, Thomas Jones was a puddler in the ironworks. The puddling job was particularly challenging. A puddler and a helper would work with 500 pound pigs of iron that were exposed to extreme heat in a furnace for purification. As the iron melted, it was stirred/mixed to extract impurities in the process. The hot pure medal was ultimately divided into balls that were sent on to the next leg of the process. The puddling process was called a "heat" and it took about two hours of hot nasty work. If not done just right, the quality of iron suffered. Thus, there was no margin for error. A puddler would perform 6 heats a day in his 12 hour day.

Just as in puddling, in life there was no margin for error for the mill workers. The workers had to stay fit to feed their families. But the work was so demanding, injuries were common place. No doubt doctors were in short supply and could be expensive, so the art of bonesetting came about as a way for neighbors to help neighbors. Thomas Jones was very good at the bonesetting practice and would see many workers come to his door each Sunday for treatment.

Jones background made him particularly well suited to the art. His father had been a farmer, a blacksmith, and veterinary surgeon who had learned to manipulate the muscles and joints of farm animals. Jones assisted his father and learned much about the animal muscles and joint operation that could also be applied to humans. The fact that Thomas Jones spent six days a week developing strength in his fingers, hands and arms while puddling must have made him a formidable practitioner.

Jones who would pass his skills on to his sons David and Thomas, and he and his sons would teach John Reese the bonesetting art. John himself would also take on a variety of jobs that would build up his own strength as well.

After John Reese established himself in Youngstown, he quit mill work to focus on his growing bonesetter practice. Despite friction from authorities and medical doctors, Reese had a flourishing practice—people lined up to see him. Eventually, the official civic community would recognize his work. Reese’s legend lives on today as a man who miraculously helped heal a number of prominent baseball players. His patients included Honus Wagner, Cy Young, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, and Grover Cleveland Alexander. Baseball history books are loaded with references to Reese, but his focus was helping the millworkers in Youngstown where he set up his practice.

David Anderson of the Society for American Baseball Research wrote an informative biographical essay on Reese. Additionally, John Reese’s grandson, David Strickler, published a book on his grandfather called Child of Moriah: A Biography of John D. Bonesetter Reese in 1989.  I was able to purchase a copy of this book, which I have referred to often in my work. 

Image from http://www.allthingsyoungstown.net

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