William Eberle Thompson

From “Bethel 1798-1998”, Bethel Historical Society

William Eberle Thompson was born in Bethel on July 6, 1835 and died in Bethel February 19, 1940 at 104 years. He was the oldest practicing physician in the United States.

At a young age, William became involved in the abolitionist traditions of the majority of townsfolks in Bethel and at 16 years of age was carrying food to the escaped slaves hiding out in the woods near the village. Possessed of an excellent physique and in addition, being an exceptionally good shot with a rifle, he is reported to have done good service also in picking off the bloodhounds the irate slave owners brought with them to trace their escaped chattels.

It was at about this time that he decided to follow in the footsteps of his father, a doctor serving the Bethel area since 1823, and study medicine. His education for the medical profession was received at Miami Medical College and Cincinnati Medical College where he made a brilliant record. When he graduated despite the urging of his professors to remain in the city and enter specialized training, the young doctor returned to Bethel to open his general practice. It was March 1, 1860, that Dr. Thompson hung out his shingle on a little 10 x 12 building near Bethel’s business district.

In 1862 Dr. Thompson married the former Margaret Elrod, also a native of Clermont County, and they were the parents of one son and one daughter. The son died in infancy and the daughter was Winifred Thompson Davis. His granddaughter was Bertha Davis Eastwood.

As soon as the Civil War broke out, believing firmly in the Union cause, Thompson volunteered for service as a physician and was promptly assigned to the 7th Ohio Infantry. He reached Bellaire, Ohio, but there became so seriously ill that he was ordered to Columbus and thence home to recuperate. He did not fully recover his health for several years there¬after.

In the year 1866 without his knowledge, Dr. Thompson’s name was entered in the Village’s mayoral race. When the votes were tallied, it was found that he had tied with Charles Green, each having 63 votes for the office. The issue then was to be decided by lot and it fell to Dr. Thompson, who, however, when he learned of the proceedings, declined to serve because of extensive medical practice.

Possibly on factor in leading to his decision was that he was already serving as Clerk of the local Board of Education, having been elected to that office the preceding year. He continued in the office of Clerk of the Board for 10 years, adequate educational facilities for the Village’s young folks always a subject close to his heart. One of his principal interests during his decade of service was to see the erection of a new and more adequate school building. This issue was voted down the first time it was submitted in 1867, but after eight years of agitation, the issue finally carried in 1875. When the bond issue finally carried, Dr. Thompson and J. M. Goodwin were authorized to prepare plans for the building.

Although he had declined to serve as mayor, Dr. Thompson served several terms as village councilman and, in addition, was appointed Examiner of Pensions during the administration of Benjamin Harrison (1888-1892).

This dedicated country doctor rode horseback for the first twelve years of his profession; then as back roads improved, drove a horse and buggy. Dr. Thompson’s professional competence was attested by the fact that in the hundreds of childbirth cases he attended, many of them under the most disadvantageous conditions imaginable, he never lost a mother, nor, during the severe influenza epidemic of 1918, did he lose a single influenza case. His pay was in cash if possible or often times “farmer’s produce”. To those who inquired to what he attributed his longevity, he was wont to reply with a twinkle in his eye, “I never died.”

Dr. Thompson took office calls almost until the last month of his long life and as late as 1930, when he was 94, could declare that he attended to all calls made upon him regardless of time of day or night, or the distance or weather conditions. On his 100th birthday (in 1935), Bethel held a big celebration in his honor. President Roosevelt sent his congratulations.