BUTLER, WILLIS POLLARD (1888-1991) was an innovative physician and criminalist who made notable contributions to the cause of scientific and medical advancement in north Louisiana throughout most of the twentieth century.
Butler's groundbreaking approach to treating chemical addiction improved the lives of hundreds of patients and was recognized as being eminently ahead of its time. During his fifty-year tenure as coroner, Butler witnessed and was involved in the development of the Caddo Parish Coroner's office into a modern scientific institution. Additionally, Butler's innovative, humane approach to dealing with the coroner's wide range of duties, including caring for the incarcerated and addicted, provides an outstanding example of professionalism and service to the Caddo Parish community.
Butler was born January 24, 1888, in Gibsland, Louisiana, the second son of Lou and Hattie Butler. The family moved to Shreveport while he was still a young boy. He received a broad education, studying first at Draughn Business college in Shreveport and then graduating from Columbia University and the medical school at Vanderbilt. After medical school, he took a job handling gross pathology, autopsies and poisons at Bellevue hospital in New York. In this position, he performed about fifteen autopsies a day, which no doubt prepared him well for his future work with the Caddo Parish Coroner's office. He married Anne Perry of Trenton, Tennessee. The couple had one daughter, Lucille, and a son, Willis P. Butler, Jr.
Willis Butler's impact on north Louisiana both in the field of criminal investigation and in the area of public health was enormous. A physician, pathologist, and chemist, he brought to the office of coroner a series of technical advances that included the City Hall's first modern laboratory. In the 1920s he led a project to vaccinate all Caddo Parish School children. Butler served the Parish for many years. He was elected to the office of coroner in 1916 and retired in 1961. In 1973 he was reappointed to the same job where he served for three additional years.
One of Butler's greatest contributions was his pioneering work in treatment of drug addiction. Butler opened his morphine maintenance clinic in Shreveport in 1919 to treat the many addicted sufferers in the area. Butler rejected the idea that jail was an adequate substitute for hospitalization. He said, "I have never seen a patient who was forced into jail and forcefully treated remain well when released." He believed the person addicted to morphine was ill and should be treated as such. He took a broad view of the addict that included the belief that, in many cases, these people were suffering from other conditions that aggravated their addictions. As a result, he sought to treat the disease's underlying causes, and he treated these patients free. The patients received treatment as their conditions required. If the addicts were terminally ill, or otherwise incurable, they received maintenance doses as their addiction required. If the patients were otherwise healthy, they received a weaning does of morphine in an attempt to affect a cure. For the curable sufferers, Butler's program included the requirement that they be employed, if possible, and that they receive a steady diet of fresh air and recreation. These men and women were encouraged to interact socially with non-users in the community. If the patient was poor, Butler assisted him "to get on his feet and become decent and at least respectable looking."
That Butler's clinic was advanced for its time has received support since the clinic's closure in 1923. Recent evidence suggests that the introduction of such an "enriched environment" of the type Butler's clinic encouraged may itself have an enormous positive effect on morphine addicts in particular. The Butler clinic also encouraged a program of after care to help integrate the patient back into normal life, which is now standard for many chemical dependency treatment programs. For Butler's patients, this strategy was successful in about 400 cases. Butler's facility was singled out at the time as being superior to all similar programs in the nation, but its reputation continued far beyond that time. In 1974, the Drug Abuse Council concluded that the program had been run so well that it "could very well serve as a mode for many cities in America."
Butler's pragmatic and humane approach to treating the addict showed marked success and, along with his own impeccable reputation, won over skeptical local critics. Butler enjoyed such a solid reputation that when the federal Harrison Drug Act of 1914 prohibited clinics like Butler's from continuing, the local establishment continued to support the approach and continued to fund and operate the clinic. Butler's reluctance to immediately close the facility was motivated by a concern for his patients. "To have discontinued suddenly the dispensing of narcotics to our aged and infirm, and incurable," he said in 1922, "would have caused much terrible and needless suffering and undoubtedly would have caused several deaths." Consistent with Butler's sterling reputation, he claimed to have once refused (during prohibition) to write a prescription of alcohol for Huey Long, who was a friend if not always a political ally.
Since Butler's clinic closed in 1923, its reputation as an effective way to treat the addicted has only grown. His groundbreaking approach to treating those addicted to drugs and his efforts to modernize the office of Caddo Parish coroner serve as a fine example of public service and humanitarian action. Willis P. Butler died June 1, 1991, and is buried in Hermitage, Davidson County, Tennessee.
Bibliography: Willis P. Butler, American Medicine. New Series, Vol. 17 (March 1922): 156, 160. Willis P. Butler, Will Somebody Call the Coroner? (New York: Vantage Press, 1963). Clarence Webb, Shreveport, Louisiana, interview by Alan Thompson and J. Woodfin Wilson, Oral History Collection, LSUS Archives & Special Collections, Noel Memorial Library, LSU-Shreveport; J. S. Wilson, "The Life and Times of Willis P. Butler," Shreveport Times, September 15, 1974. Willis P. Butler Papers, LSUS Archives & Special Collections, Noel Memorial Library, LSU-Shreveport. Caddo Parish Coroner's Office Records, LSUS Archives & Special Collections, Noel Memorial Library, LSU-Shreveport.
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.
John Turner, "BUTLER, WILLIS POLLARD," Handbook of North Louisiana Online (http://www...), accessed . . . .. Published by LSU Shreveport.
Llewellyn Pollard Butler
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