LESLIE CRISS: Small-town doctor practiced medicine with compassion

“The greatest mistake in the treatment of diseases is that there are physicians for the body and physicians for the soul, although the two cannot be separated.”

– Plato

“The life so short, the craft so long to learn.”

– Hippocrates



Every now and then, someone will introduce themselves to me and tell me they were brought into this world by my great-grandfather. Or my great uncle.

Father and son were physicians, though at different times, in the small and wonderful town of Coffeeville.

My great-grandfather, Ralph Jackson Criss, started his medical practice in Calhoun County, out in the country.

His grandson, my father (who referred to Dr. Criss as Big Daddy) said he rode on horseback around to visit his patients before he supposedly became one of the first in the state to get an automobile, changing his horsecalls to house calls, ultimately practicing medicine in Yalobusha County.

His second-born son was his namesake – Ralph Jackson Criss Jr. – and the one who took up the mantle of medicine man.

It’s Uncle Ralph someone asked me about last week. They told me how grateful they were that he’d been their physician. “He was the greatest diagnostician ever,” the octogenarian told me. “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.”

Dr. Ralph, as he was called by most of his patients, practiced medicine until his death – April 4, 1991 – at age 82.

He saw more than 50 patients the day before his heart attack.

At the time of his death, Dr. Ralph was one of the oldest practicing physicians in the state, and one of few who still made house calls, regardless of the distance or the time of day.

After medical school, Dr. Ralph practiced in Coffeeville and in Grenada, but in 1942, his skills as a surgeon were needed in the Navy.

I’ve heard family members speak of Dr. Ralph’s vast opportunities to practice medicine anywhere he wanted when peace came. He chose to go home to Coffeeville where his own father had practiced.

Always cluttered and never modern, his clinic was always warm and welcoming. People of all colors sat together in his waiting room, listening for the slow, steady steps of the good doctor who would personally usher them into his office.

His wife, Lima, was his receptionist, but she rarely remained behind the counter. She sat in the waiting room with the patients, talking about shared acquaintances, growing children and gardening secrets. And there were always Tootsie Roll Pops aplenty for all who entered, regardless of diagnosis or age.

The times I saw him as a doctor, no money changed hands. That was a hard and fast rule: We were family.

Other patients paid as they could, often in turnip greens and tomatoes or the occasional cake.

Through the years, the people of Coffeeville tried often to designate a day to honor Dr. Ralph. Reporters from The Commercial Appeal and other newspapers relentlessly pursued his story. To all requests he humbly said no. He never understood what was so special about him.

He was just doing his job.

And, my goodness, he did it well.


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