Back in the Day

Doctor's approach to drug prescriptions proved costly


William Theodore Knoop of Cranston was almost ready to leave on his vacation. The 37-year-old physician and surgeon, who had graduated from Providence High School, Brown University and Harvard, had opened his practice 10 years earlier, in 1906.

His office, located at Broadway in Providence, had a pretty steady stream of patients. Not wanting to inconvenience them while he was away, he filled out and signed a number of prescriptions, leaving the datelines blank so they could be entered whenever a patient stopped by.

He left the prescriptions with a female relative of his wife, Susie (Doughty), who would tend to the matter for him while he was gone. He obviously never imagined how this would come back to haunt him.

A short time later, the Rhode Island State Board of Health declared Dr. Knoop an unfit person to practice medicine in the state. His professional license was revoked through the courts due to “gross unprofessional conduct.”

It appeared that a good number of Dr. Knoop’s patients were drug addicts, and the state charged that he knowingly prescribed drugs to these people for the sole purpose of enabling them to feed their addictions.

Twelve witnesses testified that the doctor had, on numerous occasions, honored their wishes by prescribing morphine or cocaine, or both, more times than not without any type of physical examination being done first.

One female patient testified that she had secured a number of prescriptions for morphine, for herself, her husband and her husband’s friend. She stated that Dr. Knoop had never examined her and simply furnished her with the drugs after she signed a statement declaring that she was accustomed to using them.

The doctor argued that this was untrue and that he did examine the woman as well as every other witness prior to writing their prescriptions. He commented that this particular patient had informed him that she preferred to ingest the drug orally so he had less control over the matter than those patients who came to him and wanted the drugs injected with a hypodermic needle.

Dr. Knoop defended accusations that he was merely a drug supplier to addicts who came to him at regular intervals by explaining that he tried very hard to get them to follow what he called “my cure.” This cure, he said, was to get them to reduce their intake little by little. However, he admitted that these same people would later come to him and claim they had lost part of their filled prescription and he would simply write them another one, making a reduction non-existent.

At Dr. Knoop’s office, a prescription for morphine cost the patient $2. If they wanted cocaine as well, he would charge an additional dollar. He told the court that most patients who received morphine through injection requested cocaine to relieve the pain from the needle. He also prescribed cocaine to those suffering from neuralgia, neuritis and constipation. Interestingly enough, those issues are often the result of prolonged morphine use.

“That the appellant expected to cure his patients by such a course of procedure is incredible,” the court record reads.

Knoop appealed the decision and had his license restored in 1922. He went on to secure work as a medical inspector for the Cranston public schools, although he had begun suffering from a mystery illness which physicians could not identify. He suffered for the next eight years before dying at Wallum Lake in Burrillville on Dec. 7, 1930.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.


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