Claibourne Watkins was one of three native Arkansan founders of the Medical Department of the Arkansas Industrial University, now the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS).
Watkins was born on March 3, 1844, in Little Rock (Pulaski County), the second son of George Claibourne Watkins and Mary Crease Watkins. His father was state attorney general and chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. He had two brothers: Colonel Anderson Watkins, who was killed at Atlanta during the Civil War, and Captain Walton Watkins.
Watkins was educated in a number of institutions, both private and public. The Civil War broke out just prior to his completing his undergraduate degree at St. Timothy’s Hall in Cantonsville, Maryland. A Southerner by birth and sympathy, Watkins returned to Little Rock and then traveled to Benton (Saline County), where the Eleventh Arkansas Infantry was forming. Enlisting initially as a private in Company B, he was promoted to lieutenant because of his military education at St. Timothy’s Hall. He was soon made captain, a rank he held through the remainder of the war. Watkins was captured, along with his regiment, on April 15, 1862, at the Battle of New Madrid (a.k.a. Island No.10) and imprisoned for six months. He was then exchanged at Vicksburg, Mississippi, becoming a part of the Twelfth Arkansas and then Seventeenth Arkansas Infantries. He was captured a second time at Port Hudson, Louisiana, subsequently escaping prison at New Orleans, Louisiana. He joined Confederate forces again, under General S. D. Lee, surrendering at the close of the war at Jackson, Mississippi, on April 12, 1865.
With the ending of hostilities, Watkins returned to Little Rock, where he was employed at the U.S. Government Hospital until he was able to enroll in the Thomas Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He graduated from that school on March 7, 1868, one of two Arkansans in the class. His graduating thesis was on the pathology of pleuritis.
Upon graduation, Watkins returned to Little Rock to establish his practice. His practice flourished from the beginning, and his reputation grew rapidly in the city and surrounding area. Watkins was one of the first in the area to successfully perform an appendectomy.
During the mid-1870s, there was considerable turmoil within the various sections of the Arkansas medical community regarding the credentials and licensing of physicians. One particularly disruptive episode involved a Hot Springs (Garland County) physician, Almon Brooks. Watkins had nominated Brooks for membership in the local medical society, and when the dissention over his membership led to the withdrawal of several individuals from both the local and state organizations, Watkins, in frustration with the medical profession, began to reduce his practice and concentrate on pharmacy. By April, 1880, C. Watkins and Company advertised in the Arkansas Medical Monthly “a perfect knowledge of pharmacy, and the principles of true gentlemen characterizing each member of the firm.”
Meanwhile, Watkins, along with Edwin Bentley, Augustus L. Breysacher, James A. Dibrell, Jr., Roscoe G. Jennings, John J. McAlmont, James H. Southall, and guided by Philo O. Hooper, worked to establish the Medical Department of Arkansas Industrial University, which opened on October 7, 1879. Watkins, because of his knowledge and abilities in compounding medicines, was named professor of chemistry and toxicology at the new institution. Watkins has been described as “a dedicated teacher who fascinated students with his monocle.”
Watkins married Mildred Farley of Mississippi in June 1873 in St. Louis, Missouri. They had four daughters: Ann, Mary, Mildred, and Gertrude.
Watkins was stricken with a paralysis of unknown origin at the age of fifty-nine and was an invalid until his death at age sixty-four on July 19, 1908. At his death, Watkins was professor emeritus in the Medical Department of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville (UA), the new name of Arkansas Industrial University. Today, The Claibourne Watkins Award for Excellence in the Introduction to Clinical Medicine Course is presented annually to a member of the College of Medicine faculty.
Watkins and his wife are buried in the family plot at Mount Holly Cemetery in Little Rock.
For additional information:
Baird, W. David. Medical Education in Arkansas 1879–1978. Memphis: Memphis State University Press, 1979.
Henker, Fred O. “Claibourne Watkins: Gallant Confederate Soldier, Physician and Medical Educator.” Pulaski County Historical Review 49 (2001): 20–22.
Hanna, Calvin. “Pulaski Profile: Clairbourne Watkins, M.D., Soldier, Physicial-Surgeon, Professor.” Pulaski County Historical Review 37 (Winter 1989): 82–86.
Max L. Baker and Fred O. Henker
University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences