I know I am not the only one who gets goosebumps from amazing documents connected to the life of Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low. So, for those of you who, like me, love “history in the raw,” here’s something I bet you’ve never seen: a drawing of what was wrong with Daisy’s ear, done by her physician:

Cool, huh?! But as a historian, I don’t know nearly enough about this document. The date, for one thing, is missing, although I can guess. Nor do I know precisely why it’s in the family papers, but I can concoct a scenario. It is a grand and glorious thing to be dependent upon the documents as historians are, especially when the documents are this awesome. But it is troublesome when there are gaps. Because of that, I did not cite this document in my book. If I knew all I needed to, and if I could have illustrated Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts with even more photos, I would have included this, and I would have put it right around page 94. I think this document was from early 1885, and fits in with the story about the silver nitrate that opens Chapter Six.

Here’s my best educated guess as to the background on this document:

The terrible ear ache of 19 January 1885, struck. After local physician James Houston treated Daisy with silver nitrate, her ear did not improve. She told a friend that it was Dr. Houston’s fault because he had “burned a hole through the [ear]drum.” Her ear continued to bleed and to hurt, and so Dr. Houston, with the assistance of Dr. James B. Read, suggested that Daisy see a specialist in Atlanta, the well-known ear, nose, and throat doctor, Abner Wellborn Calhoun.

Dr. Calhoun, a Confederate veteran, was a respected medical lecturer and writer, trained in Philadelphia and Europe. At the time he met Daisy, he was also the president of the Medical Association of Georgia. He taught at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Atlanta, and his star was rising. In his future was the presidency of the College and the vice-presidency of the American Medical Association. It was natural that Dr. Houston would send Daisy Gordon to Dr. Calhoun.

Dr. A. W. Calhoun

In late January, Daisy’s father, Willie Gordon, ferried her to Atlanta as her mother, Nellie Gordon, was in New Jersey welcoming the first Gordon grandchild into the world. What happened when Daisy became Dr. Calhoun’s patient? He sedated and treated her, and then tried to explain to the anxious father what was wrong. This is where I think the document comes in. I imagine:

Dr. Calhoun sitting across his big mahogany desk from Willie Gordon. Dispensing with the jargon, Dr. Calhoun reaches for a sheet of stationary and leans in to draw the worried father a picture of what he seems incapable of actually hearing–even though the news is positive. Focusing on Willie, Calhoun ignores the fact that his paper is upside down. Here, he says, grasping the nearby pencil and sketching a rough circle, “is the natural size of [Daisy’s] ear drum.” And here is “a small bone running down across the drum.” This (he shades in a shape like a large lima bean) is “the hole as it was on Daisy’s arrival.” And this (he cordons off a much smaller circle inside the lima bean) is the “hole as it now is.” Then Dr. Calhoun pushes the drawing toward Willie.

Slowly, the realization dawns upon Willie that his daughter is improving. He sighs as one brought back from the gallows. “Doctor,” he says slowly, “would you please label this for my wife, so that when she arrives I can explain it to her as you did to me?” The courtly Dr. Calhoun reaches into his coat, removes and uncaps his pen, dips it into the inkwell, and methodically adds a written description, complete with steps “A” through “D.” Willie stands, shakes the physician’s hand gratefully, and hurries off to cheer up his daughter with the evidence of her recovery.

The supporting evidence for my interpretation is in a letter that Daisy wrote to a friend, in which she herself drew a picture somewhat similar to Dr. Calhoun’s.

Daisy’s letter to her friend

What does this tell us? That the great Dr. Abner W. Calhoun did indeed treat Daisy Gordon, and that he saw improvement from the original hole made by the silver nitrate–if I am correct about the date. I think I am. It fills in more details about the perplexing hearing loss that shaped so much of Daisy’s life. And it provides one of those “matters of less moment” that help us construct the best biographies.

Close-up of Daisy’s letter to her friend.

If we wanted to push the interpretation a bit further, we could compare the drawings. Calhoun’s hole is considerably smaller than Daisy’s. Does that mean that Daisy exaggerated? That Calhoun, the professional, had a better understanding of the exact size of an actual eardrum? Or that Daisy’s pain just felt that big? Hmmmmm…..



For more on Dr. Calhoun, see his obituary in the Atlanta Constitution, 22 August 1910, page 3. See also the Atlanta Journal-Record of Medicine, July 1900, p. 235, for his being vice president of the AMA; Calhoun’s “Polyps in the External Auditory Canal,” the Atlanta Journal-Record of Medicine, May 1885, pp. 137-139; outgoing president of the Medical Association of Georgia, from the Atlanta Medical and Surgical Journal, May 1885, p. 146;  Calhoun’s “Irido-Choroiditis Following Meningitis,” the Atlanta Medical and Surgial Journal, June 1885, pp. 233-234; Calhoun’s “Glaucoma,” the Atlanta  Medical and Surgical Journal, August 1885, p. 348; for his being president of the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Atlanta, see http://files.usgwarchives.net/ga/taylor/history/physicians.txt; for his expertise in cataract operations, see the Atlanta Medical and Surgical Journal, February 1885, 699. The photo of Dr. Calhoun is from http://www.electricscotland.com.

The drawing from Dr. Calhoun comes from the Gordon Family Papers, 1810-1968, MS2235, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The letter from Daisy is Juliette Gordon Low to Mary Carter Clarke, 8 February 1885, MS2800/6/15, George Hyde Clarke Family Papers, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.