He was a simple “country doctor” who felt an obligation not only to the patients he served but also to the community in which he lived. She was dedicated to bettering her community by supporting his practice and sharing her gift of music. Dr. Charles Otis Boynton’s thousands of patients over the course of his 63-year medical practice, and the philanthropic works of both he and his wife, Bertha Gillespie Boynton, are a lasting legacy.
Charles Otis Boynton was born in Cahokia on December 26, 1875. His father was a physician who moved his practice and his family to Sparta when young Otis, as he was usually called, was seven. After graduating from high school in Sparta, Otis enrolled in the Homeopathic Medical College of Missouri in St. Louis, graduating in 1897. The Homeopathic Medical College is noteworthy as one of the early medical schools granting degrees to women beginning in 1874.
On May 29, 1897, Otis began his medical career in Baldwin. Two years later, in April 1899, he relocated his practice to Sparta, first sharing an office with his father, Dr. S. R. Boynton, and a year later, moving into the building on Market Street where he would remain for more than four decades. In 1946, he set up a new office on West Broadway, staying there until he retired in the 1960s. “I was once ready to move to St. Louis, just at the start of World War I,” Otis recalled in the 1960s, “but I thought I would stay in Sparta until the war was over. By the time it was over, though, I was not of a mind to move anymore. So many people told me I belonged in Sparta that I stayed on, and I’ve been here ever since.”
In his early professional life, Otis was a typical “horse & buggy” doctor, making house calls, often in the middle of the night. He knew at times that he would not be paid for a call but nevertheless always felt obligated to go. On one memorable occasion, he was paid for a call by a rural patient with a pig. In 1908, he bought a Eureka Motor Buggy to use in his practice, but often had to revert to horseback for rural calls. At one time, he was so busy that he had to use six different horses in a 24-hour period. He saw patients on freight trains on the two railroads that ran through Sparta and once walked from Houston to Sparta through six inches of snow, wearing “rubber-felt boots and a sturdy ulster [overcoat] and carrying a heavy case.”
Otis was still seeing patients and making calls every day at the age of 86. He estimated that he had delivered almost 4,600 babies over his 60-plus years in practice, and in some cases, he had been the attending physician for three generations of the same family. By the time he finally hung up his stethoscope, the number of “Boynton babies” that he had helped bring into the world far exceeded the entire population of Sparta.
As retirement approached, the community that Otis had faithfully served for so long turned out in his honor. The Sparta Rotary Club honored Dr. C. Otis Boynton as one of the founding members of the club, as well as for his service to the community as a physician. At “Dr. Boynton Night” in March 1960, a letter from Dr. Frank Glenn, a native of the nearby Houston area, was read. Glenn, who had become the famous surgeon-in-chief at New York Hospital-Cornell University Medical Center, referred to Otis as “one of many early physicians responsible for the advancement of medical science in the world today.”
A neighbor and friend, Harry Bradbury, commented on Otis’s dedication to his work: “His practice was his life—he worked at it very diligently. You could call on him for any illness, any time of the day or night, in any weather. He would make a call any time. Dr. Boynton was remarkable.”
Shortly after opening his practice in Baldwin, Otis had married Bertha Gillespie on April 20, 1898, in Leavenworth, Kansas. Born in Sparta on July 8, 1875, Bertha was the daughter of Rev. Dr. W. J. Gillespie and Jane Weir Gillespie. Her father was a pastor of the United Presbyterian Church and her maternal grandfather, James B. Weir, was an early Randolph County settler.
Bertha attended grade school in Sparta, but in 1886, she moved with her family to Leavenworth, Kansas, where her father was hired as a chaplain at the Leavenworth Soldiers’ Home (now the Dwight D. Eisenhower Medical Center). In Leavenworth, where Bertha completed high school, the Gillespie family became deeply involved with both the temperance movement and the fight for women’s suffrage. Bertha’s father, a prominent pastor and speaker with progressive views, often delivered remarks at women’s suffrage meetings alongside luminaries like Susan B. Anthony.
Both Rev. and Mrs. Gillespie encouraged their daughter to pursue advanced education. Bertha attended Lindenwood College in St. Charles, Missouri, and in June 1892, she graduated from the Kansas Conservatory of Music in Leavenworth as a teacher of piano. She also studied violin and pipe organ. She and her mother spent long summer holidays with her grandparents in Sparta, where she had the chance to develop a romance with the young physician who had just set up shop in nearby Baldwin.
After she married Otis and relocated permanently to Sparta, Bertha’s curiosity for learning extended to the world of medicine. She began studying medical texts with her husband, and she read and worked side by side with him until illness prevented her from continuing.
Always a pastor’s daughter, Bertha was also actively engaged in the work of the United Presbyterian Church as a Sunday School teacher and a member of the Women’s Missionary Society. She was also active in both the county and state auxiliaries to the Illinois State Medical Society and the auxiliary to the Association of Surgeons, and she was frequently invited to speak before both religious and medical organizations.
Dr. Charles Otis Boynton’s contributions to the community as a physician were considerable in their own right, and Bertha Gillespie Boynton’s work with and in support of her husband’s medical practice were perhaps ahead of her time. However, their commitment to the community went beyond the practice of medicine, and their philanthropic mission continues today.
During their lifetime, the Boyntons contributed $70,000 to purchase the site for the Randolph County Care Center. They also donated funds to build the “Boynton Wing” at Sparta Community Hospital. Through the Sparta Rotary, they established a fund to help defray medical costs for needy individuals. Many more individuals, organizations, and churches were recipients of their generosity. They also planned to establish a legacy that would last long beyond their own lives. Bertha passed away in 1958, and Otis followed four years later, but they set up a trust that continues to benefit the lives of Randolph County’s citizens today.
Perhaps the most lasting evidence of that commitment to community is the Boynton-Gillespie Memorial Fund. Since its inception in the early 1960s, the fund has distributed over $1,000,000 in scholarship grants to area high school graduates who wish to continue their education. Over 1,000 students have received scholarships due to the dedication, generosity, and vision of Dr. C.O. Boynton and Bertha Gillespie Boynton. In 1965, the Southern Illinoisan highlighted the legacy of the Boyntons, noting that “Boynton college graduates may one day be as numerous as Boynton babies.”
Charles Otis and Bertha Gillespie Boynton were inducted into The Randolph Society in 2023.