Edwin Ruthven Heath, a prominent physician and specialist of Kansas City, Kansas, had a record among Kansas citizens that is unique. As a boy he knew the terrors, excitements and thrilling incidents of life in California following the discovery of gold in ’49. As a traveler both in North and South America he had contributed a part of the world’s knowledge of geography, peoples and science. He spent twelve years in South America, practiced medicine in remote construction camps and among wild and semi-barbarous tribes, and he helped build some of the pioneer railways of that continent. To as great a degree as it could be said of any one, Dr. Heath had lived the strenuous life. He had been a resident of Kansas since 1881, and here had given his chief attention to the practice of medicine.
Dr. Heath was born at Janesville, Wisconsin, July 13, 1839. He is the only survivor of three children whose parents were James and Madelia McLean (Boyce) Heath. Both parents came from Vermont, and his father, James, was the youngest of nineteen children. Dr. Heath’s brother, Ivon D., was a successful farmer, was a friend of Dr. Root, surgeon of the Kansas Seventh Regiment in the Union Army, and Ivon was made hospital steward under Colonel Cloud and served in that capacity through the war. In 1848, during the historic gold rush to California, Dr. James Heath and his family set out for California. They made the journey with ox teams and wagons, going by way of old Fort Kearney to the Humboldt and Carson rivers. There were two families in the party. On the way the mother of Dr. Heath was injured, and the family had to remain several weeks at Salt Lake City until she recovered. From there they moved on to Sacramento City, where they arrived October 15, 1849. Dr. James Heath soon became prominent in Sacramento, was in active service when Mayor Bigelow was shot during the squatter riot, and he also performed a valuable service during the cholera epidemic of 1850 and himself fell a victim to that dread disease. His wife did not long survive him, dying in 1851, largely as a result of injuries sustained during the long journey across the plains.
In 1853 Dr. E. R. Heath returned to his native state of Wisconsin. His guardian was J. F. Willard, a prominent Wisconsin man. Dr. Heath came back to the States by the Nicaragua route, and was landed from the boat at New Orleans, though his ticket read to New York. It seemed providential that he was not allowed to re-embark on the boat, since the vessel was never heard from after putting out to sea from New Orleans. In making his land journey to Rockford, Illinois, by stage coaches, Dr. Heath carried two large six-shooters and a bowie knife, and though only fourteen years of age at the time he was well able to take care of himself.
After he returned to Wisconsin his guardian sent him to Beloit College, where he continued his studies until he graduated from the classical course in 1861. He then returned to Vermont, the home of his parents, with a sister, and on starting west again stopped at Auburn, New York, where he became acquainted with a Homeopathic doctor. This Homeopath influenced him to take up the study of medicine. In 1862 Dr. Heath was graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons and from the Homeopathic College in 1863. He also put in one year at Boston under Dr. Lewis, and had some experience in the Clifton Springs water cure and began his private practice at Palmyra, New York. Dr. Heath was a resident of Palmyra until 1866.
In that year he came out to Wyandotte, Kansas, where his brother had previously located. Dr. Heath bought a drug store in the old town of Wyandotte, and operated for two years. In 1866 Dr. Heath was sent out to Ellsworth, then the terminus of the Kansas Pacific, and assisted in controlling the cholera epidemic there.
When Dr. J. P. Root was appointed American Minister to Chili, Dr. Heath went along as secretary of the Legation. This was in 1869. While in South America he met Mr. Henry Meiggs, a prominent railway builder in South America. Through his influence Dr. Heath was put in charge of the Pacasmayo Railway in Peru and remained there until 1878. He then came back to the United States to prepare for an exploration of the Beni River in Bolivia. Professor James Orton, the famous zoologist of Vassar College, decided to undertake the examination of the Beni River. He started on the expedition, but failed to reach his goal. Dr. Heath then determined to carry out what Professor Orton had failed to accomplish, and in 1879 he started up the Amazon. After getting some 1,500 miles along that stream he came to a railway construction camp. This camp was engaged in the building of the Madeira and Marmore Railway. The man in charge of the camp was Collins. Many of the laborers, 85 per cent, were sick and dying and, as the physician had left, Dr. Heath elected to give up his expedition temporarily at least and remained as physician for seven months. Continuing his journey, he reached Reyes in Bolivia, remained there a year, then proceeded with his exploration.
As preliminary to the long and dangerous voyage he acquired a knowledge of the tongue of the Maropa Indian tribe. The map Dr. Heath made in 1882 had remained unaltered to the present day. Due to Dr. Heath’s energy as an explorer the greater part of Rio Madre de Dios was discovered. The River Beni is twelve hundred miles long from LaPaz, Bolivia, to its mouth. Dr. Heath explored its entire length in a small canoe, accompanied only by his two Indian boys. The river wound its way through a remarkable stretch of country and portions of its banks were inhabited by cannibal Indians, and Dr. Heath had to exercise special care in escaping those man eaters. He lived part of the time on the meat of monkeys and also worms taken from the inside of palm nuts. Several years later a large stream in Bolivia was named after Dr. Heath by Colonel Pando, afterward twice president of Bolivia.
Dr. Heath on locating at Wyandotte in 1882 resumed active practice, and, though he had lived more than three-quarters of a century and had suffered the handicap of being something of a cripple, he is still in active work. His reputation had been especially widespread as a specialist in treatment of diabetes, Bright’s disease and as an expert in Urinalysis. His judgment had been sought by experts all over the country.
In 1883 Dr. Heath was honored with an honorary membership in the Royal Geographical Society of London. Only six other Americans have gained this distinction, one of whom is Colonel Theodore Roosevelt. Dr. Heath is also a member of the American Geographical Society of New York City. After locating in Kansas City, Kansas, he had remained steadily in that city as his home with the exception of the year 1893, when he went to Guatemala and harvested a crop of coffee for one of his friends. He is Consul General at Kansas City for Nicaragua, Consul for Guatemala and Counsul for Bolivia. As a delegate he attended the league to enforce peace in Europe, of which President Taft was the head, and of which Oscar Strauss and other prominent men were leaders. Dr. Heath joined in the deliberations of this peace league in May, 1916.
Dr. Heath is a republican, but had never sought any political distinctions. He is a member of the Masonic bodies and is a charter member of Chapter No. 6, Royal Arch Masons, at Kansas City, Kansas, and was one of the two charter members still surviving at the time of the fiftieth anniversary of that Chapter held in 1916. He had his lodge membership in Lodge No. 248 at Palmyra, New York. He served two years as thrice illustrious master of the council, and of the Royal Arch Chapter for five years as high priest. Dr. Heath is a member of the National Geographic Society, and had contributed a number of articles to the publication of that society and had also delivered various lectures based upon his extensive experiences as a traveler on both the American continents. Dr. Heath and wife are members of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
In 1883 he married Jennie Gregory, of New Jersey. Mrs. Heath died in 1888, leaving one child, George Ivon, of Kansas City. On July 11, 1906, Dr. Heath married Helen Macgregor of Kansas City, Missouri. Mrs. Heath was born in Canada.