A dedicated physician who was willing to put his own life on the line for his patients, Dr. George Hoffmann devoted his life to caring for the people of Randolph County in their most vulnerable moments—and worked hard to advocate for public projects that would improve their lives for decades to come.
George Hoffmann was born on March 8, 1871, in the Monroe County village of Maeystown. He was the fifth child of Jacob Hoffmann and his wife, Sybilla Jopp Hoffmann, both immigrants from Germany. George’s older siblings were Catharine, Jacob Jr., Louis, and Elisabeth (who died as a young child). Two years later, a younger brother, Charles, completed the family. George’s father ran a mercantile enterprise and saloon in Maeystown.
As a child, George was educated in schools in Maeystown and Waterloo. He grew up speaking both English and German fluently, and after finishing his own studies, he spent time as a young man teaching German language classes to students in Maeystown. He also worked alongside his father at the family store, learning the principles of the mercantile business. Jacob Hoffmann, Sr. died in Maeystown in the spring of 1883, when George was only 12.
For many years, George seemed set on following in his father’s footsteps to become a merchant. Eventually, though, he developed an interest in selling a very specific kind of goods. He decided to become a pharmacist, enrolling at the College of Pharmacy in St. Louis. But George’s interest in medicine evolved during his practical training to become a pharmacist. He decided to take his education a step further, transferring to the St. Louis College of Physicians and Surgeons to train to become a physician. Shortly after his 25th birthday, he graduated with a medical degree on March 26, 1896.
While he was finishing his medical studies, George’s siblings had settled throughout Monroe, Jackson, and Perry counties. His sister Catharine had moved to Murphysboro with her family, and his brother Charles had become engaged to a young woman from Pinckneyville. George also decided to leave Maeystown, establishing his first practice in Campbell Hill. The young doctor quickly purchased his own home in the small town and began assembling a roster of local patients. He also found love. On November 8, 1900, he married Caroline Ebers at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Wine Hill. Lena, as she was always known, was the daughter of German immigrants who had settled in Welge.
Sadly, though, the young couple’s happiness was short lived. In June 1901, George rushed 22-year-old Lena to St. Louis, where she was admitted to Jefferson Hospital, the small facility where George had trained as a medical student. Doctors discovered that she was suffering from a rare abdominal pregnancy. They operated in an attempt to save her life, but four days later, she died. She was buried at St. Paul’s in Wine Hill, just outside the church where she had married George just seven months earlier. In an obituary, the Chester Tribune noted sadly that “the married life of the couple had been filled with much happiness and promise.”
In his grief, George returned to Campbell Hill. He was supported by his brothers, but he also stayed close to Lena’s family, and a year and a half later, he was able to find love once more. On November 13, 1902, at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Bremen, he married Dora Ebers, one of Lena’s cousins. Her father, William H. Ebers, owned a farm in Bremen, but he had also attended college, and he would eventually work in real estate in Chester. Ebers also served as Randolph County’s sheriff.
Property acquisition was an interest that William Ebers shared with his new son-in-law. Though he was primarily focused on his medical career, George never lost his entrepreneurial spirit. He invested frequently in commercial and residential properties, purchasing homes in Willisville and Campbell Hill. He followed the example of two of his brothers, Louis and Charles, by becoming a partner in a furniture business; his was located in Willisville, while Louis was established in Murphysboro and Charles in Pinckneyville. And George extended his little commercial empire even further in 1905 by opening and operating a coal mine in Willisville, after coal was discovered on a plot of land that he’d previously purchased.
George and Dora also quickly expanded their family. Their first child, a son named Ebers George, was born in Campbell Hill in October 1903. A daughter, named Marie Sybilla after both of her grandmothers, joined the family in 1905. A year later, the Hoffmanns decided to move their family to Chester, closer to Dora’s parents and sister. George had already been seeing patients in Randolph County for several years, and it seems that he may have been searching for a place to establish a more modern medical practice. The difficulty and danger involved in traveling far distances to see patients may have also been a factor. The county roads had not been modernized, and George was attempting to tend to sick men and women regularly in all corners of the region. An office in Chester offered him a more central location, as well as easier access to rail travel.
Years later, George’s daughter Marie recalled the challenges her father had faced as a rural doctor at the turn of the twentieth century. “In the early days when there were no cars and no paved roads,” she wrote, “the doctors really had to depend on his faithful horse—in our case it was good old Dolly.” She added that often Dolly “found her way home without guidance.” Marie recalled that George “looked like a big teddy bear when he started out for a call in the country. Fur cap and fur ear muffs on his head, woolen scarf around his neck long enough to cover nose and cheeks, heavy fur coat and gloves and a large bear skin lap robe, plus heavy boots and a nice warm foot warmer on the floor, plus several hot bricks.” Sometimes, even Dolly couldn’t help George reach his patients. In those cases, Marie explained, “the farmers came for him in their sleighs with all the sleigh bells merrily jingling.” In even worse weather, the roads couldn’t be traversed at all. Then, she wrote, “the railroad men would take him on a hand car to Rockwood, Cora City, Raddle, Ellis Grove, etc., as long as they could use the railroad tracks, and the families would come to meet him there.” It’s no wonder that George became an early adopter of the motor car. In the 1920s, he was even elected to the Board of Governors of the St. Clair Automobile Club.
In 1909, George and Dora bought a large home at 821 State Street (then Sparta Street) in Chester for their family, which had grown to include a second son, Jacob Omer. The house was located a few blocks from George’s new office. In 1907, he had purchased the lot at 904 State Street that had previously housed Jacob Giffel’s carpentry mill. A year later, Peter Heuer had begun construction on the new office. The facility included a fashionable new amenity: an inhalatorium, where patients with respiratory conditions could be treated with vaporized medications. In 1909, the Tribune reported that Henry Biermann, a former county commissioner and one of George’s patients from Willisville, had traveled all the way to Chester to be treated in the inhalatorium. Bierman stopped by the paper’s office to share his story with them: “After several days’ treatment he felt much improved and believed that with continued treatment he will eventually become his old self again.” It doesn’t seem to have hurt, at any rate, as Biermann lived for another five years.
George’s medical practice in Chester grew rapidly, and less than a year after opening the office, work began on an addition to the property. But the family’s increasing prosperity also brought unwanted attention. In November 1911, while the family was away on a Saturday evening, burglars broke into their home on Sparta Street. They ransacked the residence, causing significant damage and stealing jewelry, clothing, and money. The criminals were eventually apprehended in Murphysboro. It wouldn’t be the end of the family’s bad luck. Just a few months later, a tornado swept through Willisville, causing damage to several properties that George owned there.
Though he faced setbacks, George’s reputation and success in Chester continued to thrive, and his luck turned around considerably. In 1912, one local writer described him as “one of the finest physicians and surgeons in Randolph County,” adding that he also “holds prestige as a particularly capable businessman.” In February 1913, when the State Bank of L.H. Gilster & Co. was reorganized and reopened in Chester, 42-year-old George was named as its president. (Three years later, the institution was given a new and more familiar name: Buena Vista Bank.) In January 1914, when the local shoe factory in Chester ousted its president, George was also elected to that post. And then, in November 1915, to cap it all off, a company headed by George and his father-in-law, William Ebers, began drilling on the Winkelmann farm east of Chester—and struck oil. The prosperous doctor’s run of success continued in the late summer of 1916 with the birth of his youngest child, a daughter named Georgia Dorothy as a tribute to both of her parents.
It would have been easy for George to simply rest on his laurels and enjoy his successes, but he responded to his good fortune by attempting to extend that prosperity, health, and happiness to his fellow citizens. In 1917, during World War I, George was appointed to the Cooperating Committee on the Tuberculosis War Problem of Illinois. The committee’s duties included taking a census of all households where patients were suffering from tuberculosis or had recently died from the disease. The census was an effort to help army officials to avoid the spread of tuberculosis in the military by avoiding drafting or enlisting men who carried the disease. He would later also extend his work fighting tuberculosis to Randolph County, where he was appointed to the board of directors of the Randolph County Tuberculosis Association, which aimed to build a new facility for patients in the county.
In March 1918, the head physician at Menard Penitentiary, Dr. John P. Grimes, passed away suddenly of meningitis. The unexpected death of the doctor, who was a valued and trusted employee at the prison, led to a search for a new physician to fill the crucial role. In June, Governor Lowden announced the permanent appointment of Dr. George Hoffmann as the prison’s new head physician. George’s medical credentials surely won him the role; it probably didn’t hurt, though, that he was a member of the same political party as the governor. George’s new role allowed him to continue seeing patients at his practice in Chester, and the Tribune wrote that “Dr. Hoffman’s Chester friends congratulate him upon the appointment and also the Governor upon his excellent choice for the important position.”
George would need all the congratulations he could get. That spring, cases of a new and particularly deadly strain of influenza were being diagnosed across the country. Young, healthy people were especially at risk from the disease that would come to be known as the Spanish Flu. The disease ravaged soldiers crowded on military bases and transport trains, and institutions like prisons were particularly vulnerable to uncontrolled spread. (Among the local soldiers who died of influenza was Herman Ackermann of Red Bud, brother of Elizabeth Durfee.) By the autumn, the epidemic had reached Randolph County. In October 1918, the Tribune reported that the city board in Chester had “decided to immediately close all of the schools of the city, to order the discontinuance of church services and moving picture shows and the forbidding of public gatherings of every description” in hopes of avoiding the further spread of the disease.
Placards were placed on the homes of those who became sick, and quarantines were strictly enforced. Several families on Kaskaskia Island were hit especially hard by the illness, and George’s new job at the prison put him in close proximity to them. In November 1918, the Tribune wrote a lengthy article on the plight of the Louvalls on the island, noting that all 13 members of the large family had become ill with influenza and pneumonia. George was called out to attend to the household, and he found the entire family suffering, crammed together in a tiny two-room home.
The situation worsened after George’s initial visit, and a few days later, he was once again called to the Louvall house. The windy and wet autumn weather made trekking to the island difficult the second time around. “Leaving his automobile at the prison,” the Tribune wrote, “the Doctor was compelled to walk two miles across a sandbar to reach a small boat which had been provided for his crossing. The waves in the river were high and Dr. Hoffmann was fearful each moment that the boat would be swamped.” After reaching the island, George discovered that the team that had been secured to take them to the house had broken free. He trudged through ankle-deep mud for miles to reach his patients.
Exhausted from the journey, George arrived to a horrific scene. Two of the family’s sons, 18-year old Arthur and 20-year old Joseph, had died, and a daughter, 25-year-old Virginia, was also close to death. No one from the community had been willing to come inside to help move the bodies of the deceased. The parents, though ill themselves, were trying in vain to tend to their remaining children. “Dr. Hoffmann secured assistance with difficulty,” the paper noted, “as all of the neighbors were fearful of contracting the disease, and hesitated about going into the house.” George’s bravery, and his professional commitment always to help those who were suffering, compelled him to act even when the circumstances were as frightening or overwhelming as they were in this sad case. The Tribune wrote that George deserved “great credit for the humanitarianism he displayed” while tending to the Louvalls.
Sadly, George’s experience with influenza was only beginning. An outbreak of influenza hit the prison in January 1919, and, despite George’s attempts to enforce quarantines and treat the sick, more than 20 inmates perished in one week alone. At one point, the number of cases at the prison reached 500—a full half of the inmate population. The capacity of the prison’s hospital was overwhelmed, and the staff was tasked with trying to maintain calm within the facility along with attempting to stop the spread of the disease. The Tribune interviewed George about the outbreak a few weeks after it had begun, and he wearily told reporters that he hoped the flu had finally run its course in the facility.
The lessons that George learned throughout the difficult times—the illness and death of his first wife, the woes of his patients, the influenza pandemic—would shape his public policy advocacy throughout the rest of his career. Along with serving as a member of numerous boards and professional associations, George spent considerable time on projects that would directly improve the lives of all of the people of Randolph County. In the early 1920s, he became an advocate for modernizing the water supply and sewer systems in the area, hoping to prevent cases of typhoid fever. Treating cases of typhoid within the prison population had shown George how important prevention measures could be, but he also had a more personal reason to advocate for the changes: his elder sister, Catharine Hoffmann Quernheim, had died from typhoid fever in 1895. George began a crusade to educate the public about the problem, delivering remarks to various local organizations, urging them to invest in upgrades to improve the health of the people of the county. In 1922, George’s efforts reached the attention of Governor Small, who made a trip to Randolph County to discuss ongoing issues with the water supply at Menard.
Governor Small also wanted to speak with George on another important issue. Over the years, George had also become a strong advocate for the improvement of Randolph County’s roads. The man who trudged through mud to reach patients during the flu epidemic clearly understood the need for a more effective, safer transportation system. Physicians making house calls needed to be able to reach their patients quickly and safely, and more modern roads would make that possible. In 1923, George was part of a committee that traveled to Springfield to meet with Governor Small about improvements to Route 3 between Chester and Waterloo. After the meeting, George told a reporter, “We are now through with our part of the road. I have spent lots of time on this job, but if the road is built in the spring I feel that I am well repaid for the work.”
Road improvements helped George to reach his patients, and they also helped him to connect with his own growing family. In 1923, his elder son, Ebers, had enrolled in dental school at St. Louis University. He would go on to graduate and open a dental practice in Chester. All four of George and Dora’s children would go on to college studies, and their younger son, Omer, would follow in his father’s footsteps, becoming a physician. He graduated from the University of Arkansas, and he eventually took over his father’s practice at 904 State Street. Like her brothers, Marie stayed in Chester, marrying a local tailor, Henry Juergens, and teaching physical education at Chester’s schools for many years. Dorothy also married into a local family, the Conners, who had roots in Prairie du Rocher and Modoc. Soon, the Hoffmann family expanded into the next generation. George and Dora’s first grandchild, Ebers’s daughter Ruth, was born in 1933, and nine more grandchildren would follow. Seeing his children and grandchild gave George an opportunity to use his beloved automobiles. So did the vacations that he and Dora took often in the 1920s, visiting places like the Ozarks and Washington, D.C.
George remained an active member of his community and a practicing physician until the day he died. On January 10, 1934, George returned home from his office after a day of consulting with patients. At eleven o’clock that evening, he suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 62. Citizens from Chester, and patients across the entire region, mourned the doctor who had cared for them and their families for more than three decades. George’s dedicated and extraordinary care for his patients, and his civic-minded advocacy for all of the members of his community, provided an example for those who followed him—and helped to leave the world a better place for the future. Even today, those of us who drive on solid roads and drink clean water can thank Dr. George Hoffmann for his efforts to make Randolph County a safer place to live.
George Hoffmann was inducted into The Randolph Society in 2022.