He healed and comforted the sick; he made house calls, established free clinics for children and expectant mothers, was an active member of numerous local civic and fraternal organizations, marched proudly in Veterans’ and Memorial Day parades. And in his spare time, Dr. Sidney R. Branson donned a striped engineer’s cap and operated elaborate model train systems in the basement of his South Windham home.
Before the memory fades, in this first of a multi-part historical record series, I will highlight the life and times of a beloved country doctor who cared for up to five generations of Windham residents, principally baby boomers following World War II.
Today, Dr. Branson would be called a general practitioner, but during the middle decades of the 20th century, his family medical practice might be the only care anyone would have.
“The overwhelming thought I have when thinking about my father is his abiding love and respect for his patients and for the town of Windham.” recalls his son, John, “(His) highest calling was service to the men, women and children under his care.” Born Sidney R. Abramsohn in Brooklyn, New York in 1912 and raised in New Jersey, he later changed his name to Branson.
“I always wanted to be a doctor.” he once told an interviewer, “…it came from within me from almost childhood. In fact, my nickname in high school was ‘Doc.’”
Branson graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1937 at age 28 and soon after came to Windham. In addition to his practice as a family doctor and obstetrician, he was also the Windham school doctor, the town’s public health officer (which included issuing restaurant and food stand permits), county medical examiner, visiting physician to Pineland Mental Hospital, staff physician at St. Joseph’s College and doctor for the Men’s Reformatory (now Maine Correctional Center). Regarding his service with the inmates, Branson indicated the need for emotional, as well as physical healing – “I tried to improve the morale of the patients through a cheery word and smile as well as cure them of their boils, colds and what-not.”
At Pineland, Branson met Nora Baker, a registered nurse at the institution. They would marry and raise three children.
World War II interrupted Branson’s service to Windham. From 1942 to early 1946 he served in a M-A-S-H (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) unit and in the Pacific theater. He later said he considered service to his country one of his greatest accomplishments.
In a letter to the editor of a local paper following the war, Branson wrote, “Hats off to (the letter writer) defending the use of atom bombs on Japan. I too get upset when I hear people blame America for using these weapons. The Pentagon estimated at least 250,000 American casualties would result (from an American invasion of the Japanese mainland). Our unit was destined to invade a heavily armed Japanese naval base.” After the Japanese surrender, Branson said, “That night our people started shooting their guns in celebration and we had 27 casualties from spent bullets. Fortunately, no fatalities.”
Branson returned to his family medical practice in 1946, just in time to deliver the first-born baby boomers. He estimated that in his 45-year practice, he delivered over 1500 babies.
Branson and wife opened their first office at Little Falls (Gorham, but traditionally referred to as South Windham) in 1941. Branson made house-calls in the morning and held office hours in the afternoon, including evening hours from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. three nights a week. From here, he would serve Windham and surrounding towns.
Son John recalls “(One time) he got up three times in one night to answer emergency situations. Many nights he would be called out to deliver babies at the old Westbrook Hospital, Maine General or Mercy hospitals.”
In 1990, looking back over a long medical career, Branson told Portland Press Herald columnist Bill Caldwell, “I charged $35 for delivering babies at home. Took out tonsils for $35. Asked $3 for an office visit and $5 for a house call. Saw every kind of illness. In a pinch, I’d even pull out teeth with a pair of ‘universal pliers’.”
But the doctor’s most unforgettable house call occurred in Standish with a mother and her daughter. In his own words, Branson told the story this way: “I told my wife I would be back for supper, but it wasn’t until two days later I returned. The shack had no phone. The daughter went in and out of labor, so I just had to wait. Throughout the day flies were buzzing around, so we had to put a net over her. At night the mice came out.” For two days, the mother served coffee and doughnuts. Finally, after a prolonged and difficult labor, “We had a nice baby girl – so it worked out all right.”
Another time, again in Standish, a distressed mother called for him to drive out to see what was wrong with her very sick daughter. “I kept two black bags at the ready – a medical bag and an obstetrical bag. I grabbed the medical bag and went. But the girl wasn’t sick, she was having a baby. Because I hadn’t brought the obstetrics bag, I had nothing to tie off the umbilical cord. I saw a sneaker on the floor and told the mother to pull out the laces and soak them in alcohol. I tied the cord with shoe laces. Didn’t hurt any. That baby is now a big strapping man.”
In an interview following Dr. Branson’s retirement in 1982, he was asked if he had any students who would pretend to be sick to avoid school. “We had a few of those,” he replied.
Windham resident Carol Taylor tells about the time she feigned sickness to avoid going to school. Her parents called Doc Branson. After an examination that failed to show any signs of illness, he told the parents “there may be some redness in the back of her throat,” whereupon he turned back to Carol, and winked.
Susan Atwood says, “Doc Branson took excellent care of five generations of my family from my great-grandparents down to my children. (I) loved to hear him say, “Oh yeah” (because he) said it like ‘Oh yarrah,’ like a New Yorker.”
Life-long resident Gary Plummer said he considers Dr. Branson to be one of the greatest people he has known, citing the doctor’s support for kids and his extensive involvement in town affairs.
Few who knew the good doctor fail to remember his undying interest in trains and the elaborate model rail system that he built up over many years. The layout included an extensive track scheme, over 40 engines, hundreds of freight and passenger cars, and dozens of railroad memorabilia. He worked his hobby after office hours, between 10 p.m. and midnight. He named the HO scale model village the Windham & Gorham Railroad. Two of the passenger cars were dubbed The Pill and The Scalpel. In 1958, Dr. Branson rode the last (real) passenger train over the Mountain Division line.
His long-time friend and fellow rail enthusiast Al Wellman speculated “I suspect part of the reason for the location of his home on Rt. 202 was its proximity to the Maine Central Mountain Division line.”
Dr. Sidney Branson passed away in 2002, age 90. In retirement he had continued to reach out to people. He was known for his smile and friendly hello and as he put it, “A little banter – that’s healthy. People these days are too tense and avoid eye contact. It takes just as much effort to frown as it does smile – so smile.”
In the next installment of “Before the memory fades”, The Apple Man of River Road