PULLMAN, Wash.— The newest book from Washington State University Press, Rugged Mercy: A Country Doctor in Idaho’s Sun Valley, tells the story of Robert Henry Wright, known to many in his day as the “doctor who never lost a patient.” He graduated from American Medical College in 1906, a time when medical practice was shifting from folklore and quackery to real science, and the West was emerging from its frontier past. In June of that year, he married his childhood soul mate and joined a relative’s practice in Walker, Missouri. But the newlyweds missed their families and by 1908, returned to their roots in Hailey, Idaho. There, the young physician partnered with Dr. John Plumer, and began treating patients across the region. Eventually, he welcomed a grandson, also named Robert Wright, who decided to record his grandfather’s adventures.
Primarily based on oral history, Rugged Mercy depicts Dr. Wright’s personal and professional ordeals, but also stretches beyond them. His cases and interactions introduce readers to a range of cultures and lifestyles—Basque sheepherders, Chinese immigrants, even red-light district occupants. The book also captures a 1914 Spotted Fever epidemic and an avalanche disaster that devastated the North Star Mine in 1917. Author Robert Wright alternates between accounts of his grandfather’s decades of medicine and his own memories of growing up in Hailey to provide an intimate glimpse of challenges faced by rural physicians in the first half of the 1900s, significant historical events in the evolution of the Wood River Valley and Sun Valley resort, and of family life in a small Idaho community.
Along with libraries and newspaper articles, the author’s research included consultations with local historian and Hailey Times News reporter, Roberta McKercher, and for advice on medical techniques during the era, Dr. James Whorton, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Washington School of Medicine.