Bonesetter Reese

From BR Bullpen

John D. Reese

Biographical Information[edit]

Bonesetter Reese was born on May 6, 1855 in Rhymney, Wales. His father, a coal miner, died shortly thereafter and his mother followed some ten years later. Orphaned, Reese went to work in the Welsh ironworks. He was taken in by an ironworker named Tom Jones, who taught Reese the trade of bonesetting, a term Welshmen used for treatment of strains of muscle and tendon, not actually setting broken bones. Reese remained under Jones' tutelage until he left for the United States in 1887 at age 32.

He became a coal miner and then roller's helper at Jones & Laughlin Steel in Pittsburgh, PA and moved to Youngstown, OH, where he took a job at the Brown-Bonnell Mills. He attended Case University (now Case Western Reserve University) in Cleveland, OH (for three weeks). While his reputation is that he was unschooled, in fact he owned an extensive library on the subject of anatomy. His trade met with opposition from the medical establishment, prompting him to attempt to earn a proper medical degree, but he abandoned the attempt as only certain very specific aspects of medicine - the workings of bones, ligaments and muscles - interested him, while the sight of blood and surgery frightened him. As a result, he was told by the head of the medical school to return home as he had nothing to learn and may even lose his wonderful skill if he were to stop working according to his own methods. It is claimed that he then received a licence to practice his trade directly from the Ohio legislature, but no proof of this has yet been found. He married Sarah, with whom he sired five daughters: Mary Ann, Sarah, Gertrude, Elizabeth and Kathryn. Sarah (his wife) died in 1911.

Reese's involvement with baseball players was purely a sideline. He preferred baseball players but worked with other athletes. The primary focus of his practice was treating his one-time colleagues, the mill workers of Youngstown. Reese's unique ability of manipulating muscles and ligaments put working men and ballplayers alike back to work, giving him the reputation of miracle worker in some circles. Prominent patients included Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, former President Theodore Roosevelt, evangelist (and former baseball player) Billy Sunday and humorist Will Rogers. His first client in baseball likely was hometown player Jimmy McAleer, who suffered from a cramp in his back during his time with the Cleveland Spiders in the early 1890s. Reese was successful in treating him, and McAleer in turn spread the word to teammates such as Nig Cuppy, and other ballplayers including Babe Adams, Honus Wagner and Tommy Leach from the nearby Pittsburgh Pirates, in the early 1900s. In contrast, Reese hated football because he considered that the sport itself was a constant cause of injuries, and he usually refused to treat gridiron players. However, a lot of this is based on speculation and second-hand knowledge, as Reese himself never revealed the list of his clients.

In 1931, at the age of 76, Reese died in Youngstown. His passing was noted in the Youngstown Vindicator like that of a major head of state. His obituary noted that he treated patients as they came in, that the famous had to stand in line. Patients paid what they could afford, while widows and orphans of mill workers were not charged for his services. Seven years before his death, the baseball publication Sporting Life paid tribute to Reese's contribution to baseball noting, "[he] has prolonged the active life of countless baseball stars and preserved them for the fans of the country to cheer."

Further Reading[edit]

  • Dave Anderson: "Bonesetter Reese: Baseball's Unofficial Team Physician", in Brad Sullivan, ed.: Batting Four Thousand: Baseball in the Western Reserve, SABR, Cleveland, OH, 2008, pp. 99-103.
  • Vince Guerrieri: "Bonesetter Reese And The (Mostly Painless) Birth Of Sports Medicine", Deadspin, October 10, 2019. [1]

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