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Dr. Gilbert Saltonstall Brought Modern Medicine to Charlevoix

07.31.2019

Note: As part of its year-long centennial celebration, Munson Healthcare Charlevoix Hospital offers a glimpse into the people who made it what it is today. This is the third in a series.

Dr. Gilbert “Gib” Saltonstall’s legacy in Charlevoix continues today through babies he helped bring into the world and uncommon surgical skills that allowed many patients to turn another page in life.

The physician’s 43-year career would bridge the pioneer era of medicine in Charlevoix that focused on house calls, and patients swapping labor, chickens, or other goods for his skills, to one that involved the technology of X-rays, antibiotics, blood transfusions, to the even more modern times of health insurance and the headaches of high medical liability insurance premiums.

“I remember I went out of town to deliver a baby at a farm – well actually, it was an old shack,” he said, during an interview in 1976 after he announced his retirement. “And there was a kerosene lamp on the table. Well, it was right at the critical moment of the delivery that the cat got excited and knocked the chimney off the lamp and I had to deliver the baby completely in the dark. It was my second delivery.”

Dr. Saltonstall arrived in Charlevoix at 4 years old in 1912. His father was an original member of the Chicago Club. Brayton Saltonstall was 57 when he married Anna May Belle in Cheboygan. She was 35. Gilbert was born three years later.

As a teenager in Charlevoix in the 1920s, Gilbert Saltonstall would sometimes accompany the county health department physician on his calls. He was fascinated with medicine and surgery. Sometimes a visiting surgeon would allow him into the OR at the hospital on Hurlbut Street to watch a case. There was little doubt the young Saltonstall would become a physician and surgeon. He attended the University of Michigan for his undergraduate and medical degree, interned in Detroit for a year, including six months with a surgeon who wanted him to stay in the city. But that was not to be.

 “My parents were elderly and they were anxious for one of their sons to be with them,” he told a reporter in 1976. “My brother’s education in electrochemistry required that he work somewhere else, and there was a doctor leaving town.”

Establishes Charlevoix Practice in 1934
So in 1934, he set up his Charlevoix practice charging 50 cents for office visits and $1 for a house call. During his career he delivered more than 3,000 babies and introduced more modern medicine to the community. He performed the first blood transfusion from patient to patient with assistance from pioneering physicians Robert Bruce Armstrong, M.D., and FF. McMillan, M.D. During World War II, he made an overnight train trip to a military facility to obtain the new wonder drug penicillin to save a patient who developed an infection after giving birth.

“He would do house calls on Beaver Island by plane,” recalled daughter Connie Saltonstall. “The pilot was Joe McPhillips. My dad would get a call about someone in trouble on Beaver Island and he would meet Joe at the airport and fly over.”

After the passing of Dr. Armstrong in 1940 and Dr. McMillan in 1948, Dr. Saltonstall became a continued and authoritative voice urging the construction of a new hospital in the city. “He was definitely an advocate for the hospital and very involved in getting that project accomplished,” Connie Saltonstall said.

He surprisingly also found time to contribute to the community in other ways. On Sundays, he could be found as part of First Congregational Church choir. He also loved barbershop quartet singing and he would be known to break into song at a restaurant with others of like mind. He served for years as county coroner and the city health officer as well as a member of the board of the local state bank.

Connie and her sister, Wendy Post, characterized their father as dedicated to his profession. But they did not see much of him.

“He left the house at 7 a.m. and he came home at 7 p.m. and that’s when we had dinner,” Connie said. “And he would often have to go back to the hospital or make a house call. He would go to the hospital every single day.”

Wednesday afternoons in the summer and Sundays after church were for sailing, but even those times would get interrupted with emergencies.

“There were times the Coast Guard would come out and pluck him off the boat,” she said. “Any of the real complicated surgeries he did. What they did when he was practicing was so limited compared to what they do now. He did appendectomies, gall bladders, delivered babies. … He was very good at setting bones and things like that. Sometimes he would have to put pins in the bones to hold them together.”

A 'Very Kind Doctor'
Former X-ray technician at Charlevoix Hospital June Cross characterized him as a “very kind doctor” who knew how to put people as ease – even youngsters who required a broken bone set and cast.

“He was always there and would explain it all to them. Once in a while I would help him put on a cast,” she said. “He would say, ‘June come help me.’ He would show me how to do all of it and get it ready.”

Wendy Post recalled a time in the winter when a snowstorm left streets impassable. “There was so much snow the city snowplow had to come and get him and take him to the hospital,” she said.

During his career Dr. Saltonstall was president of the Michigan State Medical Society and a delegate to the American Medical Association. He was a founder of Blue Shield and served on the board of Blue Shield of Michigan. He was quoted in the Petoskey newspaper about the struggles of physicians with lawsuits in the more modern day. He also never lost his interest in new discoveries or technology.

“He loved younger physicians coming in and talking about new medical procedures and techniques,” recalled Kathy Boss, a longtime nurse and former vice president of professional services at Charlevoix Hospital quoted in the hospital’s 75th anniversary booklet. “He enjoyed talking to them. He would listen to them to learn about the newest advances. He was really interested in laser surgery. He’d say to me, ‘Can you imagine?’ He was amazed at the rapid advances in medicine. He was always a gentleman.”

Dr. Saltonstall died in 1995 at the age of 87. His daughters still hear stories about his impact on area residents’ lives.

“When they hear my name,” Connie Saltonstall said, “they say, ‘Your father delivered my mother,’ or ‘Your father delivered me.’”

Read more stories on the history of Munson Healthcare Charlevoix Hospital.