Once Upon a Time

Doctor thought U.S. proved its might in World War I

Physician and Col. Charles D. Center wore his World War I infantry uniform in this undated photograph. | Illustration courtesy of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County
By Arlis Dittmer
Posted: Apr. 15, 2018 12:10 am Updated: Apr. 15, 2018 12:19 am

Dr. C.D. Center took an unusual path when he served in World War I. He had been a respected doctor in Quincy for 17 years. He began his military career in 1905 as assistant surgeon for the Fifth Infantry of the Illinois National Guard. In 1910 he was promoted to captain and shortly after to major. Because of the ability displayed while on duty at Fort Benjamin Harrison in 1912, he was transferred from the medical corps to field and staff duty as a lieutenant colonel of the infantry. In that capacity he reported for duty March 26, 1917, shortly after the United States entered the European war, now known as World War I.

Charles Dewey Center was born in 1869 on a farm near Ottawa. While helping his family farm, he suffered a leg injury and developed a blood infection. Not being able to farm, he attended Knox Academy and Knox College in Galesburg. In 1890, his leg was injured again, and he spent months in Chicago at Presbyterian Hospital, which helped him decide to become a physician and where he met his future wife. He graduated with honors from Rush Medical College in Chicago in 1894. After graduation he was a surgeon for three iron mines on the Gogebic Range in northern Michigan before returning to Chicago to complete his internship.

Soon after, Dr. Center married his first wife, Edith, who had taken care of him in 1890, and who was a graduate of Illinois Training School for Nurses. At the time of their marriage she was assistant superintendent of the school. They moved to Quincy in 1896. Dr. Center first worked with Dr. Henry Hatch before he opened his own practice specializing in surgical services for women and diseases of children. He served on the medical staff of Blessing Hospital and was a lecturer for Blessing Hospital Training School for Nurses.

Dr. Center wrote scientific articles for medical journals on a variety of topics such as encephalitis, abdominal pregnancy, history of medicine, malaria, and the uses of X-rays. He was active in both the Adams County Medical Society and the Illinois State Medical Society, holding a various offices. According to the Quincy Medical Bulletin, he also was known as "a speaker of force and wit … on almost any subject." He and his wife had two sons, Donald and Arch, before she died of Bright's disease in 1908. Fourteen months later, he married a nurse he met while she was in training at Blessing Hospital. They had two sons, Charles and H. Allen.

Dr. Center was called to active service March 26, 1917. While at Camp Logan in Houston, the Fifth Infantry was transformed into military police, engineers,and machine gun battalions. In November he was placed in command of the 108th Ammunition Train. In December he received orders to report to Hoboken, N.J., where he boarded the ship Andania and sailed for France. In Blois, he was told he had been promoted to colonel before he left the United States. He was now in charge of a station of casual officers, those coming and going, but also those about to be discharged from service. His next assignment was with the 4th Canadian Division and then on to Staff College for a short time. Throughout these months in France, he received training on front line transport of men and materials, all of which prepared him for his job of transport command in the 33rd Division of the 2nd Army. After the war ended in November 1918, he was provost marshal for the Duchy of Luxembourg.

His oldest son, Donald, also joined the Army. He left the University of Illinois in May 1917 and enlisted in the Fifth Illinois Infantry. He went overseas with the headquarters company of the 129th Infantry. While in France, he was transferred and became a battalion sergeant-major of the 108th Trains and Military Police.

In the last chapter of his book, "Things Usually Left Unsaid," Dr. Center wrote, "It was not altogether a pleasant thing to be an American officer in France late in 1917 and early in 1918. … (Allied officers said) A year ago you would have been welcome; now your coming will merely prolong the struggle a few weeks or months, and we will have to pay a still greater penalty… ." He then asked, "What did we get out of the war?" He answered his own question by saying, "We prove again that the American Nation -- slow to take offense, dilatory perhaps in her methods up to the final moment -- will, when sufficiently aroused, fight, and fight hard."

Dr. Center returned from France in 1919 on the U.S. cruiser Charleston. He was senior military officer of 1,300 officers and men who landed in Hoboken on May 22. Because his health was impaired after service in France, he did not immediately return to his practice but accepted a position as secretary of the Quincy Chamber of Commerce for one year. He recuperated from his "war shattered health," during long summer fishing trips in Minnesota, before he reopened his general medical practice.

At the time of his death, Dr. Center was on the advisory board for the State Board of Health and was the incoming president of the Illinois State Medical Society. He was crossing Maine Street between Sixth and Seventh streets when he was struck by a car. He was taken to St. Mary Hospital where he died three hours later of brain trauma, fractures of the jaw and shock. Witnesses said he was walking south across the street in the rain and did not see the car. He died May 31, 1934. His friend Walter Stevenson wrote in the Quincy Medical Bulletin, "The world is a better place for men like Charley Center ... physician, patriot, citizen. We will miss you. We stand at attention as you pass by. Requiescat in pace."

 

Arlis Dittmer is a retired medical librarian. During her 26 years with Blessing Health System, she became interested in medical and nursing history--both topics frequently overlooked in history.

 

Sources:

Ancestry.com. U.S., Adjutant General Military Records, 1631-1976 (database online). Provo, Utah. Ancestry.com Operations Inc., 2011.

 

Center, Dr. Charles D., File S-6898, Knox College Archives, Galesburg, Ill.

 

Center, Charles D. "Things Usually Left Unsaid." Quincy, Ill.: publisher not identified, 1927.

 

Collins, William H., and Cicero F. Perry, "Past and Present of the City of Quincy and Adams County, Illinois." Chicago: S.J. Clarke Pub. Co., 1905.

 

"Death of Mrs. Center." Quincy Daily Herald, April 20, 1908, p. 10.

 

"Dr. Charles D. Center Had Most Interesting and Unusual Career: Had Led Varied Life of Activity." Quincy Herald Whig, April 1, 1934.

 

"Dr. Center Named as Major Surgeon." Quincy Daily Whig, May 29, 1910, p. 8.

 

"Dr. Charles Dewey Center Dies After Being Struck by Automobile in Front of His Office, Friday Night." Quincy Herald Whig, March 31, 1934.

 

Smith, George Washington. "History of Illinois and her people." Chicago: American Historical Society, 1927.

 

"I remember You: or Quincy Men Who Are Quincy Doers for the Good of Quincy." Quincy Ill.: privately printed for subscribers, 1912.

 

"Illinois in the World War: An Illustrated Record Prepared with the Cooperation and Under the Direction of the Leaders in the State's Military and Civilian Organizations." Vol. 1. Chicago: States Publications Society, 1920.

 

"In Memoriam," Quincy Medical Bulletin, 11, No. 2 (May, 1934).

 

"No Blame Placed in Accident Fatal to Dr. C.D. Center." Quincy Herald Whig, April 1, 1934.

 

Stevenson, Walter. "An Appreciation," Quincy Medical Bulletin, 11, No. 2 (May, 1934).

 

'Remembering WWI'

In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of America's service during World War I, this column is running a series of articles about the area and its involvement in the war. The articles coordinate with the "Remembering WWI" exhibit at the History Museum, running through November.

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