via “Suspended Coffees:
Snopes: Origins: The above-quoted account has been showing up in the snopes.com inbox since 2000. It has appeared in any number of collections of inspirational tales and self-help books, including Ruth Fishel’s 2004 Living Light as a Feather: How to Find Joy in Every Day and a Purpose in Every Problem, Viola Walden’s 1994 Pardon the Mess: A Collection of Family-Building Thoughts, Benjamin Blech’s 2003 Taking Stock: A Spiritual Guide to Rising Above Life’s Financial Ups and Downs, and John Mark Templeton’s 2002 Wisdom From World Religions: Pathways Towards Heaven on Earth.
It is a well-traveled and much beloved tale. And yet, while at its heart it is a true story, it has been so greatly exaggerated that it is now only a caricature of itself, having been distorted in numerous ways to better tell the story of a doctor who wouldn’t accept a fee for his services from a girl who once gave him a glass of
Dr. Howard Kelly (1858-1943) was a distinguished physician who was one of the four founding doctors of Johns Hopkins, the first medical research university in the U.S. and arguably one of the finest hospitals anywhere. In 1895 he established the department of Gynecology and Obstetrics at that school. Over the course of his career, he advanced the sciences of gynecology and surgery, both as a teacher and as a practitioner.
It is not his skills as a healer or accomplishments as a medical pioneer that concern us in this tale, though, but rather the account of a years-previous kindness repaid.
According to the biography written by Audrey Davis from knowledge she gained of the doctor through her 20-year friendship with him and through the notebooks and journals he left her upon his death (Dr. Kelly began keeping a diary at the age of 17 while in his junior year of college), the story of the bill paid in full by the glass of milk is true:
On a walking trip up through Northern Pennsylvania one spring, Kelly stopped by a small farm house for a drink of cool spring water. A little girl answered his knock and instead of water brought him a glass of fresh milk. After a short friendly visit, he went on his way. Some years later, that same little girl came to him for an operation. Just before she left for home, her bill was brought into the room and across its face was written in a bold hand, “Paid in full with one glass of milk.”
However, it should be noted that while the gist of the story may be true, reality has been greatly embellished to create a more touching tale. Dr. Kelly was never an impoverished student who ruefully eyed his last dime as hunger set in, resolving to beg a meal at the next farm house. He was the scion of a relatively well-to-do family, and he did not have to work to put himself through school, let alone by peddling goods door to door. Over and above his education and living expenses, the young scholar received from his family a monthly allowance of $5 for pocket money, his biographer noting of his bank account in those days: “It is amazing how many items of necessity and pleasure those $5 deposits accounted for, and yet there was always an unexpended balance.” On his 21st birthday, the future doctor received “checks for $100 from his father and from several aunts,” which would have been considered astronomical sums in those days (1879).
The young man did not hold a job, in fact, until the age of 22. Upon being sent to Colorado Springs for his health (he stayed there for a year) and purchasing a horse for $40, he carried the mail for a week to relieve the regular mailman.
The future Dr. Kelly came to be tramping about the farmland and woods of Pennsylvania and ended up at that farm house door through his love of nature. His special joy was hiking great distances and studying animals in the wild, and indeed he had been headed for a career as a naturalist until his father insisted during his final year of college (1877) that he “divert his talents into a field that offered greater certainty of a livelihood and promised fair financial return.” Dr. Kelly did retain his interest in the natural world throughout his life, though, and so he continued to go on such walking trips.
On the day described in the “milk” anecdote, he hadn’t been “ready to give up and quit,” nor had he been experiencing a spiritual crisis that caused him to doubt the nature of man or God. Throughout his life Howard Kelly was a devout Christian whose faith was as natural to him as breathing. He was neither financially nor spiritually beaten down that day; he was merely a thirsty hiker who thought to ask for a glass of water at a farm he passed.
The Davis biography of Dr. Kelly contains no mention of the “glass of milk” girl’s being “critically ill,” of her local doctors being “baffled,” or of her being sent to Baltimore because she had fallen victim to a “rare disease,” as the much-embroidered version of the tale would have it. Indeed, nothing is said of her case to indicate that it was at all unusual, or that her life was in any way in jeopardy. Other than for Dr. Kelly’s writing off her bill for that long-ago glass of milk, her case was not remarkable in the least.
As regards his writing off that bill, while Dr. Kelly did charge very high fees for his work (and “suffered extreme criticism” for it, says his biographer), he did so only with patients who could afford it, their payments underwriting the medical care he provided free-of-charge to the less fortunate. By his conservative estimate, in 75% of his cases he neither sought nor received a fee. Moreover, for years he paid the salary of a nurse to visit and care for those of his patients who could not otherwise afford such treatment, thereby providing them with both doctor and nurse without charge.
So, to sum up:
Howard Kelly wasn’t a destitute young scholar peddling goods door to door in furtherance of his dream of someday becoming a doctor and so was rescued from overwhelming hunger by a fortuitous glass of milk. He was a thirsty hiker out on one of his many rambles about the countryside to study wildlife. He asked for water at a farm house and was instead given milk.
The girl who gave the milk to him later came to him as a patient, but likely not because she was dying or because her condition was unusual.
Dr. Kelly wrote off her bill, but he did so with three of every four patients he treated.