The Criminal Fringe

Ask anyone who has conducted historical research and they’ll likely offer their own example of the scenario I’m about to share. You’re deep into researching one thing when suddenly you run across something entirely unexpected, only to find yourself irresistibly drawn away from what you were initially researching. Think dog sees squirrel and you’ll get the picture.

You feel exhilarated tracking a little-known subject or story that seems to offer intriguing possibilities; you also can’t help feeling irritated with yourself for losing focus and valuable time traipsing deeper into a research forest well-off the main trail.

In this instance, my research subject was Dr. Benjamin Hawker, the litigant in the key Supreme Court decision Hawker v. New York that secured the authority of state medical boards to discipline physicians. My attempts to trace Hawker’s backstory led to some extensive online research. Somewhere along the way, I stumbled upon “Dr.” Edward Dowdall. His story offers a reminder of the white-collar criminal elements that gravitated toward medicine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The persistent activities of Dowdall and his ilk created a good deal of additional work for state medical boards.

In spring 1906, Dr. Seymour Doss (S.D.) Van Meter, Secretary of the Colorado Board of Medical Examiners (pictured below) received an odd letter from an Illinois physician requesting a “favor.” Edward Dowdall explained that he wanted to obtain a Colorado medical license but didn’t feel “overconfident” the board would accept his application.

Furthermore, he wanted a Colorado license even though he didn’t wish to practice in the state. He confessed that there were so many doctors in the state that “I fear I would starve to death in Colorado.” Still, if Van Meter would “help me out” he (Dowdall) would return the favor with a gold watch and a diamond set locket.

Van Meter must have been surprised by the clumsy but direct bribe offer for a license he didn’t intend to use. In closing the letter, Dowdall made clear his ultimate objective—he wanted to practice in New York state. His plan was to get the Colorado license and bide his time (“lay dormant” for a few years as he described it) before using that Colorado license to get licensed in New York.

Dr. Van Meter joined the Colorado board in 1901. Over the subsequent twenty years of his service on the board, he enjoyed a front-row seat to many attempts to circumvent the regulatory system. In a delightful 1925 article, “Medical Forgeries,” Van Meter shared stories of the fakes, frauds and imposters that he and the board encountered. Dowdall’s awkward attempt at bribery—while striking in its directness—lacked sufficient deviousness to make the cut for inclusion in Van Meter’s1925 reminiscence piece, but he knew already how to handle such matters.

He responded to Dowdall with an “encouraging” letter and asked for two photos. Dowdall responded with the requested photos and information, intended (so he assumed) for his Colorado license application. Instead, Van Meter forwarded all their correspondence to Dr. James Eagan, Secretary for the Illinois Board of Health.

As it turned out, Eagan and colleagues were already investigating Dr. Dowdall for several misdeeds in that state. Practicing medical without a license was one infraction. The one that authorities seemed most focused on involved allegations that Dowdall attempted to secure money under false pretenses—specifically, securing hundreds of dollars from medical students and prospective midwives by promising he could “fix” things with the Illinois Board through a “charitable scrutiny” in scoring their licensing examination.

The case against Dowdall only grew stronger when the arresting authorities found bogus diplomas from the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons. Dowdall had apparently sold a large quantity of these for as little as $5 each.

What also came out at that time was the reason why Dowdall felt he couldn’t legitimately secure a license from the Colorado board: while practicing medicine in Detroit he had been sentenced in to 7 years for perjury in a botched effort by Dowdall and a female companion to punish a rival physician through a sexual assault claim. Dowdall sat in prison from 1899 until sometime prior to July 1905.

He apparently arrived in the Chicago area after Port Huron, Michigan police “ordered [him] to leave the city” in 1905. He was practicing medicine without a license in Illinois when Eagan received the bundle of letters from Van Meter.

A Chicago jury convicted Dowdall in August 1907 but from there the paper trail disappears entirely. We don’t know what sentence the court imposed. We don’t know whether Dowdall lingered in the area afterward or made his way east to ply his trade (medicine? Fraud?) in New York City.  

Dowdall presents a good example of the weaknesses of the medical regulatory system of that era. Take the matter of his medical credentials. In 1890s Michigan, the basis for a medical license was a diploma from a “legally chartered” institution. Don’t be fooled, however, by the gravitas suggested by the term, “legally chartered.” This represented a low standard as laws governing the issuance of school charters were notoriously lax in many states. A medical degree from a “legally chartered” medical school was easily obtained as Dowdall knew first-hand. While he claimed to have graduated from Trinity College (Dublin), the specific degree he presented for licensure was from the Independent Medical College of Chicago—a fraudulent school notorious as a medical diploma mill. (The Illinois Supreme Court revoked the school’s charter in 1899.)

Another weakness was the anemic statutory language in many states for regulating medical practice in those days. When Dowdall was convicted of perjury in 1899, only nineteen states gave their medical board the authority to revoke a license they had previously issued. Michigan was among the nineteen. So even though Dowdall had a perjury conviction, the Michigan board could not remove his license to practice…though local authorities apparently found ways to make life sufficiently uncomfortable that he opted to leave for Chicago.

Another weakness stemmed from the poor communication among and between medical boards. This was precisely the flaw that Dowdall intended to exploit with his clumsy attempt at a Colorado license. He knew that his Michigan license was tainted by his perjury conviction in that state. Thus, he needed a clean license as the basis for trying to secure a license in New York without having to reference his time in Michigan. If Dowdall could’ve obtained that Colorado license and laid low for a few years, his application for a New York license ca. 1908 or so would’ve been based upon that Colorado license and passing the New York licensing exam. If he could pass the exam (no small hurdle) he would’ve been open for business in the relative anonymity of New York City’s metropolis.

Looking back at this era, we can see this sprinkling of non-violent, white collar criminal types hovering around the fringes of medical licensure and practice. I don’t believe there were necessarily a lot of these types but just enough to require regulatory vigilance. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. Once a license became mandatory in order to legally practice medicine, both the medical degree and the license itself acquired an economic value as credentials and as the basis for income beyond that of the average worker.  

As for Benjamin Hawker? Dowdall only sidetracked me so long. I’ll write about Hawker v. New York and the good doctor’s surprising backstory in my next posts.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not represent the views of the Federation of State Medical Boards.

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