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The country doctor

John Conway
Posted 11/3/23

He was born in 1891 in Hurd Settlement in the town of Bethel, and graduated from Monticello High School, New York University, and Bellevue Hospital. He began practicing medicine in 1917, and was …

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The country doctor


He was born in 1891 in Hurd Settlement in the town of Bethel, and graduated from Monticello High School, New York University, and Bellevue Hospital. He began practicing medicine in 1917, and was active for more than 50 years, serving nearly that long as Sullivan County Coroner. Along the way, he treated as many as four generations of some Sullivan County families. When he died of a heart attack in August of 1973, it was, fittingly, in his office.

He was Dr. Ralph S. Breakey, the epitome of the country doctor.

If you are of a certain age and grew up in or around Monticello, nothing more need be said. If you are anyone else, no mere newspaper column could adequately describe his impact.

Following a stint in the U.S. Army Medical Corps during World War I, Dr. Breakey returned to Sullivan County and took his place among the established doctors in the village of Monticello, men such as Curlette, Cauthers and McWilliams, all well-respected. Before long, he had become the most respected of them all, not just by his generations of patients, but by other physicians, as well.

Dr. Breakey served as the president of the Sullivan County Medical Society for many years, and was the Society’s first ever honoree at what became its annual Payne Memorial Dinner, a swank affair named in honor of three generations of Liberty doctors. He became the award winner against which all future honorees were measured. Most fell short.

As coroner, he presided over thousands of autopsies, some of which made national headlines. 

When the bullet ridden body of jitney driver Irving Ashkenas was discovered hanging out of his car in the driveway of the Paramount Manor Hotel in Hurleyville in September of 1935, Breakey was on the scene to pronounce him dead.

Breakey initially found five bullet wounds in the former mob collaborator’s body. Four bullets, he determined, had been fired from outside the car and the other by someone alongside the driver in the front seat. All five shots had struck Ashkenas in the head or chest. Breakey ordered the body removed to the McGibbon & Currey Funeral Home in Liberty for further examination. There, he would later discover a total of sixteen wounds, including stab wounds, and would recover five bullets from two different guns, one a .32 caliber, the other a .38.

Although there were indictments, no one was ever convicted in the Ashkenas murder.

In May of 1939, Breakey was again involved in a high profile case when an unidentified corpse was fished out of the waters of Loch Sheldrake. Breakey’s autopsy on the man, later identified as narcotics peddler Maurice Carillot, revealed that he had been shot five times and stabbed seven. Although mob hitmen, including local tough guy Jack Drucker were charged in the Carillot murder, no one was ever tried for the crime.

When Breakey was called in to consult on the case of a farmer who had mangled his hand in an agricultural accident, he was told that the consensus was that the hand had to be amputated or the man would die. Breakey did not agree. Putting all of his old-time medical knowledge to use, he was able to save the man’s hand, and his life. The man was Max Yasgur of Bethel, who some years later would rent out one of his alfalfa fields for a music concert that ended up defining a generation.

There were other well-known cases, to be sure, but it wasn’t the murders or the grisly car accidents that made Dr. Breakey’s reputation. It was the way he treated everyday people everyday. For most of his life, he worked an exhausting schedule, making house calls early in the morning and late at night, doing his hospital rounds, and then holding office hours in the afternoon and evening. Many times, his Broadway office wasn’t closed until after midnight.

In 1971, the Times Herald-Record newspaper named Dr. Breakey its Citizen of the Year.

“I’m deeply appreciative of the honors you have bestowed upon me,” Breakey said at the time. “But I do not feel I am worthy of all of them. I have done nothing that I did not want to do, and nothing that I was not supposed to do.”

When the Monticello Central School District was constructing a new elementary school some decades ago, they approached Dr. Breakey about naming the school after him. He politely declined the honor, and suggested the name of another family physician he thought should be honored instead. He was.

Now, the Monticello Central School District wants to honor Dr. Breakey again, this time by posthumously inducting him into the school’s Hall of Distinction. In a ceremony in the High School auditorium this afternoon at 4 p.m., that induction will take place.

It is an honor that is long overdue.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian and a founder and president of The Delaware Company. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com.  


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