Michael J. Dowling awoke early on Dec. 5, 1880, unable to bend his knees
or open his hands. The 14-year-old Minnesotan had been herding cattle near
Canby, Minn. and was caught outdoors in one the state’s worst-ever
Soon, frostbite would claim the lower parts of both of Dowling’s
legs, his left arm and fingers on his right hand. But he would overcome his
disability to become a grade school teacher, high school superintendent,
newspaper publisher, banker, speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives
and special commissioner to the Philippine Islands. Dowling was also a husband
and the father of four children.
|Michael J. Dowling held positions
as a grade school teacher, high school superintendent, newspaper publisher,
banker, and Speaker of the House of Representatives for the state of
|Image: © 2011 Minnesota
“When anybody tells you that because a man loses a leg or two of
them or an arm or both of them he is a cripple, just refer him to me and I will
take care of him,” Dowling wrote in the Annals of the American Academy of
Political and Social Science in 1918. “There is no such thing as a
cripple, if the mind is right.”
Born in Massachusetts in 1866, he and his family moved to Minnesota in
1877, according to the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library online. Dowling,
who died in 1921 at the age of 55 years, lived most of his life in Renville,
Dowling was 52 years old when he wrote his life story for the Annals.
The article was published with the title “A Story of Rehabilitation by a
Crippled Who is Not a Cripple.” It was supposed to be an inspiration for
amputee soldiers returning from World War I and a guide for how their families
should treat them.
“If you do not watch out you will do so many things for the
crippled soldier that when he gets back home he will not feel the need of
exercising his own muscles or his own faculties,” Dowling warned.
“You must put him in a position where he has to do the work. I know it is
good for a man in that condition, because I have gone through the mill.”
Despite his multiple limb loss, Dowling said he found “life …
still worth living … a splendid joy … not only in courting the girls
and marrying one of them and having a son and three daughters; we have lost the
son, but the three daughters are still alive to grace the household.” He
added, tongue-in-cheek, “I am happy to say that when a man has his legs
frozen off – and I believe it is also true when they are shot off –
he does not pass on to the next generation the same condition; in fact, I am
the only one in our family who has been compelled to buy artificial legs.”
Dowling said he had been making his own way since he was 10 years old,
when his mother died. He had no brothers or sisters. His father was a poor
carpenter who could barely support himself.
The night the snowstorm hit, Dowling bedded down in a straw pile. After
dark, the temperature plummeted to minus 50·. By morning, the snow and
bitter cold locked his knees and froze his hands shut “like two chunks of
After sun up, he managed to stagger to a nearby farmhouse and rouse the
“The good lady of the house filled a tub with cold water and some
other vessels with cold water, and I put both arms up to the elbows and both
legs up to the knees into this cold water,” he said.
He said the thawing process gave him “a splendid opportunity”
to show bravery.
“It is not a very pleasant occupation, watching the frost freeze
the water around your hands and legs and form an ice coating all around as the
frost comes out,” he said.
The damage to flesh and bone was deep and irreversible. Only multiple
amputations could save the teen’s life from the inevitable gangrene.
Sixteen days later, a trio of doctors performed the operations on an
oilcloth-covered kitchen table inside a small house in Canby, the westernmost
town in Yellow Medicine County.
“The line of demarcation … appeared very plainly just above the
ankle joints and just about at the wrists of the hands,” he wrote.
“If ever any germs had an opportunity on anyone they had it on me, but I
just grew fat on them. Nothing occurred except healing.”
He said the good citizens of Canby helped him get better. They furnished
“bandages from worn pillow-slips and sheets and wearing apparel that the
ladies tore into strips and wound into rolls.”
Their leader was a Mrs. Dodge. “She did not ‘dodge’ any
work when it came to helping me out. She was there all the time and had a corps
Even so, Dowling confessed, “there were a few days when I felt
really stunned.” He said he “was a very active young man, pugnacious,
full of fight, and I found myself suddenly with most of the fight cut off
– at least, that part which I used to fight with successfully was not in
very good shape – so I transferred my thoughts from those things that were
gone to what was left.”
Minus an arm and both legs, Dowling concluded the only thing to do
“was to polish up the machinery above the neck.” He said he became an
“omnivorous reader” and a “carnivorous eater.”
“I ate heartily, read ravenously, and got as much learning as I
possibly could without the aid of teachers,” he said. “I went to
school just as much as I possibly could under the circumstances.”
To help pay his medical bills, Dowling sold his five young head of
cattle “and a very intelligent pony with handwriting on his hips.”
He said he cried all night when he sold the pony.
Dowling learned to walk on his knees, which were heavily padded against
the pain of walking on the ends of his femurs. Eventually, he attracted the
attention of the Yellow Medicine County Board of Commissioners, which wanted to
help him become “reconstructed and rehabilitated.”
To that end, the board agreed to pay a local farmer two dollars a week
to take care of Dowling for the rest of his life. The teen was grateful but
made a counter proposal: “If you will give me one year at Carleton College
it will never cost this county another cent as long as I live.”
The board accepted Dowling’s offer. When he came back from college,
Dowling “painted fences, ran a rollerskating rink, sold books by
subscription, sold maps, and, in fact … did everything and anything that
would bring in an honest dollar and I was not ashamed to be seen doing the
painting by the roadside and have the rest of the boys go by and say, ‘You
are putting more paint on your clothes than you are on the fence,’”
according to his life story.
While teaching, he ran a weekly paper in Renville. He became known
statewide for stirring “up one of the large financial institutions of our
state to such an extent that it became one of the greatest failures in the
history of the northwest. I made charges against it through the columns of my
small country paper, verified by examining their books at their own request,
and then published the verification,” he said.
Dowling’s expose was his springboard into politics. Before he
became a lawmaker, Dowling was an assistant to the chief House clerk and later
became chief clerk himself.
“I was … elected Speaker of the House, it being the first time
that a new member had occupied that position, and also against the wishes of
the combinations that usually controlled. There happened to be in that House
enough new members in the state to make a comfortable majority.”
Along the way, Dowling learned to operate a car. He drove his wife and
children on several trips, including jaunts to Yellowstone Park and back East
to his native Massachusetts.
“We have lived very happily, and she never thinks of the artificial
legs any more than I do,” he wrote of his wife. “In fact – I
think if I may be pardoned from getting away from this personal talk just a
moment – the trouble with most crippled men is that they think about those
things that are gone and cannot be brought back. They keep their minds on what
is gone, instead of diverting their minds to what they have left and making an
effort to develop what there is left.”