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ARVEL RODOLPHUS PONTON: FATHER OF MEDICINE ON THE TEXAS SOUTH PLAINS 

Arvel Rodolphus Ponton Sr. was born January 1, 1885 in Fairfax, Oklahoma. He attended the University of Oklahoma, where as a tall, strong, and athletic young man, he became the starting quarterback for the school’s prestigious football team. Following his undergraduate studies, Arvel Ponton struck out for the University of Kansas Medical School and received his medical degree in 1907. As a now-official doctor, he then studied surgery at the Mayo Clinic, and by March of 1908, was admitted to practice medicine in the State of Texas. From this new home, Dr. Ponton would go on to become a pioneering medical professional considered to be the “father of medicine in the Texas South Plains.”

Ponton's initial stop in the state would be Copperas Cove in Coryell County, moving there after learning that an older and unrelated Dr. Ponton practiced medicine in the town. The young and clever Dr. Ponton believed that potential confusion between the two Ponton doctors might work to his advantage and bring him a few patients as a good start to his medical practice. There, Dr. Ponton received his first big break after being called out to a simple dugout home where a poor worried couple’s newborn child had just been given up on by the other Dr. Ponton as a hopeless cause. The baby was yellow, jaundiced, swollen, and crying out in distress. With no diagnosis or cure for their ailing child, the parents were losing faith. However, by the dim light of a coal-oil lantern, Dr. Ponton soon realized that the baby boy’s foreskin was unopened leaving the child unable to urinate. Quick thinking from Dr. Ponton led to a simple, elegant solution: grab a razor and remove the foreskin. As soon as the straightforward procedure was complete, the relieved baby cried out in happiness before bringing laughter to all present when the child proceeded to pee on his grandmother as the doctor held up the baby. Thereafter, the young Dr. Ponton was well on his way to a successful medical career, and news of the town’s talented new doctor spread. Soon, patients throughout Coryell County were lining up to seek out the young Dr. Ponton’s services.

Dr. Ponton’s next big break came when the Santa Fe Railroad arrived in Copperas Cove, and the Rail Line liked Dr. Ponton enough to hire him as the company doctor for the region. This new career required Dr. Ponton to travel along the Santa Fe Line as it expanded, eventually leading the doctor in 1910 to Garza County’s Post City, where two years earlier, C. W. Post, of cereal grain fame, had started building his namesake town. With the railroad’s arrival there, Dr.Ponton settled into the town and soon became acquainted with C.W. Post. The doctor impressed all, and Post City’s town board went on to hire Ponton as doctor for the Post Company (then known as the Double U Company), while Ponton maintained his Santa Fe Railroad position too.

With the town booming, by 1911, C.W. Post and Dr. Ponton began to conceive of a sanitarium (hospital) to take care of the health needs of both the townspeople and surrounding population, so the pair broke ground on what would be the first modern hospital on the Texas South Plains—the Post Sanitarium. To achieve the level of care desired, Dr. Ponton, who was able to begin using the space for patient operations in the spring of 1913, erected a large and suitably equipped two-story building in the middle of town. In addition, Dr. Ponton—well aware of the need for quality nursing staff to support the Sanitarium—founded a nursing school at the hospital too. And with everything in place, the Sanitarium’s reputation quickly soared, as Post Company managers noted in 1914: “The sanitarium is one of the best drawing cards we have at the present for the town. People are coming in from neighboring counties for treatment.”

Dr. Ponton was not without enemies however. In 1913, Post’s local troublemaker, C.C. Woods, the Double U Company veterinarian, took a disliking to the Doctor. Woods had heard that Dr. Ponton made some disparaging remarks about him, and Woods demanded an explanation. In response, Dr. Ponton told the veterinarian to come into town and confront the situation face to face. Woods arrived armed with a 30-30 Winchester and met Dr. Ponton in front of Warren’s Drug Store. Woods leveled the rifle at the doctor and asked if he was ready to settle their differences. Dr. Ponton replied by knocking the gun out of Woods’ hands and beating the veternarian until Sheriff Kelly came along to separate the two. Soon thereafter, Ponton and the town board quickly found that Post city had no more room in it for Woods.

Things went well for Dr. Ponton and the Post Sanitarium until 1917. Between a drought slowing down business in Post, and the war in Europe taking away all the doctors hired for the hospital, Dr. Ponton found the going a little too rough, so he decided to sell back the sanitarium to the Double U Company and moved up the Santa Fe Railroad Line to the now bustling city of Lubbock. There, Dr. Ponton knew that Lubbock, like Post City before it, needed a first-class hospital.

What was later to become Lubbock’s Methodist Hospital had its beginnings in 1917, when three physicians, including the newly arrived Dr. Ponton, banded together to found a second hospital in the city, the Lubbock Sanitarium. To fund purchase of the hospital’s land, construction and medical equipment, Dr. Ponton underwrote one-half of the original $100,000 capital stock required; one-fourth was supplied by Dr. O.F. Peebler, a general medicine and obstetrics physician who had arrived from Fairfield, Iowa in 1909; while the remaining $25,000 was provided by Dr. J.T. Hutchinson—an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist with an educational background that included Tulane, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania.

Construction of the 25-bed hospital started in 1917 at the 1300 block of Lubbock’s bustling Broadway thoroughfare on a 125 x 175-foot space that left the sanitarium’s first floor partially underground, and in short order, by early January 1918, patients began to be admitted (local M.M. Coleman is said to have been the first). During that inaugural year, the patient total was an admirable 551 individuals, and the staff, besides the three founding physicians, consisted of one graduate nurse, ten student nurses, the business manager, a cook and a janitor. The growing need for nurses at the new Lubbock site had prompted Dr. Ponton to move his nurses’ training school from Post to the Lubbock Sanitarium, and ten nursing students entered the first class. The nursing program at the Sanitarium grew into the still-thriving Covenant School of Nursing, while Lubbock Sanitarium eventually became Lubbock General Hospital, Memorial Hospital, and then Methodist Hospital, now known as Covenant Hospital.

Dr. Ponton’s legacy at the hospital lead to an interesting interfamilial twist of fate. It begins in 1919, when a young Dr. J.T. Krueger moved to Lubbock and trained as a surgeon at the hospital under Dr. Ponton, so when Dr. Ponton decided to move to the big city in Fort Worth a year later, he sold his interest in the Sanitarium to Krueger, who took over Dr. Ponton’s Chief Surgeon role at the site. Years later, Dr. Ponton’s son, Arvel Ponton Jr., would also go on to become a doctor and eventually returned to Lubbock himself following service as a World War II combat surgeon in Burma. In Lubbock, Dr. Ponton Jr. would end up completing a surgical residency at Methodist Hospital from 1946-1948 under Dr. Krueger—the very same surgeon Dr. Ponton Sr. had trained there decades earlier.

In many realms, Dr. Ponton, himself a character and full of talent, was duly deserving of the cliched “larger than life” title. He was an avid sportsman and early car buff. He once answered a patient call to Lamesa from Post, driving there under a hard rain in a fender-less, topless Ford “Tin Henry” car. Returning with both himself and the car covered in mud, he vowed to make all future trips by horsepower instead. And in another illustration of his zest for life, he later went on a hunting trip with Dr. A. C. Surman of Post in a newer car, his “32” Hupmobile, and sighted a herd of antelope, which the pair overtook, allowing Dr. Surman to shoot two of the animals from the moving car to great excitement.
When Dr. Ponton left Lubbock in 1920 for Fort Worth, he opened the Ponton Clinic where he continued to practice until his death in 1944. He also built and operated Protestant Hospital in Fort Worth for ten years, which was later sold and became the Baptist Hospital (later Methodist Hospital). Dr. Ponton also operated the Denton Hospital-Clinic for 13 years, the Edinburg Hospital for ten years, and yet another clinic and hospital in Brownwood. As an avid pilot, he sometimes flew his own plane to attend to patients in Denton, Fort Worth and Edinburg all on the same day. He also owned and supervised the Ponton Ranch near Fort Worth and was an active Mason. Dr. Ponton’s death in 1944 was untimely: the result of a fall while riding a horse on his ranch. He was only 59. Dr. Ponton Sr. had a daughter and son, Dr. Arvel Ponton Jr., who practiced medicine in Ft. Worth (1950-1957) and Alpine (1958- 1995). His grandchildren are now spread across the state, from Alpine to Fort Worth, and are raising families of their own.
Dr. Arvel Ponton Sr. is a true Texas pioneer and the founder of the first two hospitals in the Texas South Plains: The Post Sanitarium and the Lubbock Sanitarium. His legacy lives on with the hospitals in Lubbock and Fort Worth continuing to operate to this day, along with the nursing school he founded in Lubbock.

--Arvel Rodolphus Ponton III
November 2018


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