The Story Of Payson, Arizona

Chapter 20: Payson gets a full-time doctor

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In the early decades of the Payson community, medical care was limited to folk remedies or the occasional presence of a part-time doctor hired by the nearby mining companies. A gunshot wound or an accident was often fatal, and diseases like diphtheria and small pox were certain to take the lives of their victims. The high percentage of fatalities among the children gave evidence to the Rim Country’s isolation from medical attention, but that would change in the year 1912.

A 34-year-old physician named Christian Risser arrived to establish his medical practice in Payson. Born in Pennsylvania in 1878, Risser was a graduate of the University of Chicago Medical School, and was soon to become head of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School. However, his yearning to serve people drew him into civil service and the practice of medicine among the Navajo people on the reservation in northern Arizona. A few years later, he took his practice to Tempe, where he met and courted a schoolteacher named Marie. During the years, he ventured over the Mazatzal Mountains to discover Payson, and found the area so appealing and the need for medical help so pressing, he moved his practice here.

He bought a small ranch, and raised a small herd of cattle to support himself. In 1917 he and Marie were married, and soon after he built a house at the corner of Oak and Main Street, with a room where he could treat his patients.

In later years Marie recalled the ride from Tempe to Payson when the doctor brought her home as his bride. She quickly learned what life would be like in the years ahead. The Rim Country History records that “the trip took seven days with Wash Gibson driving eight horses and pulling two wagons. On the way to Payson the freighter learned that the Hardt twins were ill. When the freight outfit neared the Hardt ranch near Felton’s, now Jake’s Corner, Doc took time out to doctor the twins and brought them to Payson for needed additional care. Soon the babies were well.”

The doctor was never hesitant to call on the patients who were far out on the ranches of the Rim Country and Tonto Basin, and he wore out several horses with his faithfulness to the people. He carried saddlebags, and wore chaps to protect his legs from the brushy trails.

The editors of the Rim Country History paraphrase Marie as she recounted a typical call her husband made out into the country. “One cold winter Dr. Risser learned that the cowboys on the Pecos McFadden Ranch near Pleasant Valley were all sick with flu and in need of medical help. The doctor tied on his small bedroll, put his instruments in his saddlebags, put on his chaps and heavy coat, and left in deep snow for the McFadden bunkhouse. He arrived two days later to find all hands in bed and no one to care for them. Doc built up the fire, gave medical attention to the four cowboys, and cooked some food for them. Four days later he left for wife and home because the boys were much better and able to care for themselves. Two days later (eight days total) Doc arrived back home. Marie had had no word from Doc and what might be expected during his absence from home.”

Stories abound surrounding the legacy of Payson’s first doctor, many of them told by his nurse, Theresa Boardman.

The same year of Dr. Risser’s arrival, 1912, Payson merchant Bill Boardman married Theresa Haley, and as she was trained as a nurse, she quickly became Dr. Risser’s assistant. She also became the town’s source of medical care during the doctor’s absence. Although Theresa Boardman became a legend herself, in later years she loved to tell stories about the doctor.

“I’ll never forget when Charlie Chilson cut his leg with an ax. Charlie said, ‘Aren’t you going to wash it before you work on me?’ So Doc Risser said, ‘What are you talking about? It’s all sterile stuff.’  Charlie said, ‘It don’t look sterile to me.’ And I’m telling you, Doc didn’t own a pair of rubber gloves. And who do you think gave him his first pair of rubber gloves for a present? It was Marie.”

Many were the nights when a loud knocking would come at the Risser home, calling him out into all kinds of weather for help. It was terribly frightening when epidemics would sweep the countryside. “Oh boy,” said nurse Boardman, “When the small pox broke out, if it had been black smallpox there wouldn’t have been enough live ones to bury the dead. Then we had scarlet fever. Bill (her husband) went down, grown men went down with scarlet fever. Doctor said it was a miracle he lived.”[1]

The Risser’s son, Christian Risser IV, was born in 1919, delivered by his dad in the family home. They called him “Christy.” In a 1994 interview he recalled how his dad served the Tonto Apaches who lived on Indian Hill. “One time my dad gave Henry Chitten some medicine, told him to take three teaspoons a day for a week and he’d be well. In a couple of days he got sick, and my dad asked him what happened. He said, ‘Well, you said to take three teaspoons a day and I’d be well in a week, so I decided to take more and I’d get well quicker.’ He had doubled the dose.”[2]

Christy remembered accompanying his father at times on calls of mercy. One time a cowboy at the Bar-T-Bar ranch on Deer Creek had a skull fracture when a horse rolled over on him. The road to the ranch was little more than a wagon rut, and to reach the man they had to walk much of the way through washes and timber. Another time the doctor was called to the Henry Haught ranch in Little Green Valley, where one of that family from Pleasant Valley had come to request a doctor. They wanted Dr. Risser to go over there, to which he responded, ‘Of course.’ He figured the fellow with the message would take him back, but the messenger balked. He did not want to go out in the winter weather again. One of the Little Green Valley Haughts “pulled out a gun and said, ‘You are going! You are going to take Dr. Risser back there, Just get on your horse and take him!’

“They made it, and my dad stayed with the Haughts in Young four days until the sick one came through the crisis. On the way home, in a moonlit night, he and his horse hit a smooth wire fence, and all of a sudden he felt himself floating backwards like a slingshot. The horse and rider picked themselves up and continued on to Payson.”

Doc Risser not only attended the sick and wounded, he saw to it that the causes of many diseases were eliminated. When an epidemic of typhoid broke out in Pine, Kohl’s Ranch, Christopher Creek and outlying ranches, the doctor realized the source of the problem and insisted their springs had to be cleaned out, and proper sanitation methods put to use. The epidemic was soon curtailed.

It was 1933 when Dr. Risser passed away in Payson after 21 years of faithful service to the entire area. He had spent several days tending to a ranch family in Tonto Basin, and then rode his horse home through a rainstorm. He contracted pneumonia from which he did not recover. He was only 55 years old, but had made an indelible mark on the life of Payson families. Theresa Boardman remembered well. “I’ll never forget the day (he died). I never seen as many grown people cry in all my life. We thought we was all going to die; that was the end of us. He was a wonderful doctor. That man knew anatomy, and I don’t mean maybe…”[3]

[1] “Black smallpox” is a severe form of the disease accompanied by extensive bleeding into the skin and internally (called “hemorrhagic”). This form developed in 2 percent of the infections, mostly in adults.

[2] Oral history taken by Stan Brown with Dr. Christian Risser IV at his Phoenix home, Feb. 14, 1994.

[3] Sources for this chapter include the Rim Country History, (Rim Country Press, Payson, 1984), oral history with Theresa Boardman taken by Ira Murphy, oral history with Dr. Christian Risser IV taken by Stan Brown. Oral histories and their transcriptions are to be found in the archive of the Rim Country Museum.

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