Sunday, October 24, 2010

Florida History: Tough times for Fort Lauderdale's first doctor

Thomas Simpson Kennedy (1859-1939), a North Carolinian, made his way to Florida after service with the U.S. Army during the Spanish American War.

“During my army experience … Florida was more talked about as a pioneer state for young men to go to than the old phrase ‘go west young man, go west,’ ” wrote Kennedy in his memoirs.

With army experience, two years of schooling in pharmacy and high hopes, he traveled south from Georgia by boat, rail and foot. After stopping in Titusville, then Jensen where pineapples were grown commercially, and Stuart, Kennedy couldn’t find work. The hard freezes of 1894 and 1895 had dealt farming an icy blow. Kennedy continued south, arriving in the small outpost known as Fort Lauderdale in October 1899.

He began his life near the New River growing tomatoes but a yellow fever epidemic soon broke out, affecting all in the area, including Kennedy. He tended to patients – and his tomatoes – until the fever ran its course through “every man, woman and child … black and white.”

In 1900, before the epidemic ended, two doctors from the Federal Bureau of Health visited Kennedy to investigate his practicing medicine without a license. The tomato farmer told them there were no doctors there during the epidemic and that none had been allowed into the area, which was under quarantine. Satisfied after examining his patients, the federal agents arranged to pay Kennedy for his services. That money, plus proceeds from his farming efforts, provided the would be doctor funds to complete his medical degree.

With degree in hand, Kennedy resolved to “practice medicine full blast without a horse, without anything but my feet to walk on.” And that he did, from Miami to Stuart. If people couldn’t pick him up with horse and buggy, he’d take a train to visit patients. One steamy hot July day he took a train from Fort Lauderdale to Deerfield to tend to a family with typhoid. When finished, he began walking the 15 miles back to Fort Lauderdale and collapsed. A man with a hand car (small railroad car) came to his rescue. From that time on, if travelers were found ill, Dr. Kennedy was summoned – later traveling with his own horse and buggy.

Successful tomato farmer and popular country doctor, Thomas S. Kennedy is counted among Fort Lauderdale’s colorful – and vital – early pioneers. Copyright© 2010. Jane Feehan. All rights reserved. Search this blog's archives for "Florida History" to see additional posts.

Broward Legacy, Vol. 6, No. 1-4. Thomas S. Kennedy: an autobiography of a country doctor.

For the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, visit: www

Tags: Fort Lauderdale history


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting this bit of history concerning Dr. Kennedy. I have been researching my ancestors, many who died in the yellow jack fever epidemic. I still have not located their death notices, places of burial, etc, but I know they were under Dr. Kennedy's care at the time. My only surviving (Johnson) ancestor moved to Alabama abt. mid 1895.
I hope to locate a copy of the book you mentioned above in the near future. Thank you, Patricia Johnson Maxwell

Jane Feehan said...


Contact the folks at - Fort Lauderdale Historical Society - for info on early burial records.