The Medical Bags of Dr. Matthew Dalton Phillips

These cases were carried on horseback by a country doctor practicing medicine in rural North Carolina about a hundred years ago. Apart from the passage of time, they are exactly as Dr. Matthew Dalton Phillips last used them in 1925.

A native of Stokes County, Phillips arrived at Wake Forest College in 1871. He was accompanied by his brother, John Yewell Phillips, and they shared a room on campus where they slept on straw ticks and studied by candlelight. According to family legend, one brother studied until midnight while the other slept, then they exchanged places for the rest of the night.

In those days, the Wake Forest College curriculum included four years of Latin, Greek, mathematics, and English. The brothers graduated together in 1875 in a class of nine men–the largest since before the Civil War–with John Phillips officially documented as the last former Confederate soldier to earn a diploma from the college.

As Wake Forest College had not yet established its medical school, Matthew Phillips went on to study medicine at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and New York University before returning to Stokes County where he practiced scientific medicine for forty years. Phillips is remembered as “a modest, dignified man who was widely respected and widely sought after. He was noted for his skill in diagnosing diseases.” He also kept up his interest in classical languages throughout his life and took pleasure in reading the New Testament in Greek when he had a few moments of leisure time.

This story, along with these remarkable artifacts and photos, were recently given to the museum by William Phillips (WFU ’60) and his wife Kay. William never met his grandfather. Matthew Phillips died on December 19, 1925 after developing pneumonia. The family believes he caught a chill from crossing a stream in wintry weather while making his regular rounds. Once asked why he continued to practice medicine in the tiny village of Dalton, Phillips replied, “I am needed here.”

John Yewell Phillips made his mark as a state legislator and lawyer practicing in Stokes County. He died in 1919.

In 1975, to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of their graduation in 1875, the Phillips family established a pair of academic prizes in honor of Matthew and John Phillips. The M.D. Phillips prize in Classical Languages and the John Y. Phillips Prize in Mathematics are awarded each year to the Wake Forest University graduating senior with the highest average in each of the two departments.

Shortly before his death, Matthew Phillips wrote a poem commemorating his years at Wake Forest College. It includes this verse:

Wake Forest! round thy cherished name our fondest memories cling; The homage of deep gratitude to thee this hour we bring. Whate’er success has marked our lives to thee we largely owe, Whose molding care we here received now fifty years ago.

Matthew Dalton Phillips and John Yewell Phillips are buried in the family cemetery on Old Phillips Road about two miles south of Pinnacle, North Carolina.

The museum is most grateful to Kay and William Phillips for donating these family artifacts, photographs, and documents to assist in our efforts to collect, preserve, and share the history of Wake Forest.

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