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Willis Bent Morse, M.D.
 
When he died at the age of 78, Willis Bent Morse, M.D., was celebrated as having practiced medicine in Salem 53 years, longer than any other physician. He is survived by three institutions. The first -- in 1896 --was establishment of a non-profit hospital that became Salem General Hospital and then merged into Salem Hospital. Two Morse initiatives in 1903 led to the creation of The Doctors' Clinic in Salem and the Oregon Board of Health, a predecessor of the Oregon Health Division.

Born in McMinnville, OR, on March 21, 1866, Dr. Morse died July 20. 1944. The Capital Journal speculated that he had been a victim of World War II, succumbing to exhaustion from attempting to fill the gap on the home front after almost half of Salem s physicians had been called into military service.

"If any man ever believed in the holiness and sanctity of medicine and surgery it was Dr. Morse," newspaper columnist Don Upjohn wrote. The son of William B. Morse, first superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary, and Nancy E. McBride, a teacher, Dr. Morse spent his childhood in Salem, St. Helens, and the Dalles. He earned his medical degree in 1891 at the Willamette University Medical School.

Early in his practice, Dr. Morse became one of the first Oregon physicians to distinguish between malaria and typhoid fever, two diseases then common to the state. He traveled as far north as Wheatland Ferry to make house calls on victims of malaria, once finding five persons in one residence sick with the disease. His habit of making house calls, often at night, continued until his death.

He was married in January, 1899, to Ethel Elaine Cusick, whose father had been a member of the first graduating class in the Willamette University Medical School in 1867. The marriage lasted only seven years, however; Mrs. Morse and an infant son died of an infection in March, 1906. John E.. Davis, who chronicled Dr. Morse's life for the Marion County Historical Society in 1985, said the physician promised his dying wife that he would never remarry. He remained true to that vow and lived with the late Mrs. Morse's parents until their deaths. Dr. Morse and Dr. Charles H. Robertson began a joint practice in 1903. It had grown to eight physicians by the start of World War II and is today The Doctors' Clinic.

Informed by continuing medical education at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and in New York City, Dr. Morse became a vigorous advocate of improved sanitation in Oregon. He served 20 years on the State Board of Health, including a term as its chair, and was president of the Oregon Medical Society in 1927. He also took part in several national commissions that worked to improve the quality of medical practice in the United States. Dr. Morse was a pioneer member of the American College of Surgeons.

Dr. Morse left the bulk of his estate, $130,000, to Salem General Hospital, and his name lives on in the Morse Building at Salem Hospital's Center Street site.

Compiled and written by John McMillan.

Bibliography:
Davis, John E. Doctor Willis Bent Morse: 1866-1944. 1985.

Dr. Willis B. Morse (1886-1944), Panegyric, 1972, Marion County Medical-Auxillary, Salem, Oregon, Salem Public Library.

Salem in Portraits, page 4, HNC 2767, Salem Public Library

 

 
Dr. Willis Bent Morse
Dr. Willis Bent Morse
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