Zaphney Orto (1842–1923)

Zaphney Orto, a prominent physician who helped discover the link between malaria and mosquitoes, was a U.S. army major and surgeon during the Spanish-American War, and the second president of Simmons First National Bank, founded in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County).

Born to Leonidas Orto and Martha G. McElwee Orto in Somerville, Tennessee, in 1842, Zaphney Orto lived on a farm near Somerville until he was eighteen, then worked in a store for two years. He studied medicine with Dr. S. W. Thompson of Evansville, Indiana, and graduated from the Miami Medical College of Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1872. Shortly afterward, he moved to Arkansas, where he settled in Clover Bend (Lawrence County). He practiced medicine there for two years before moving to Walnut Ridge (Lawrence County).

He married Margaret Coffin of Lawrence County in 1873, and they had six children. Margaret died on September 2, 1900.

In 1882, while in Walnut Ridge, Orto began investigating malaria, believing there was a direct connection between malaria and mosquitoes. At a meeting of the State Medical Society of Arkansas on May 31, 1882, he presented a paper on the “Cause of Malarial Poison,” in which he said that although malaria was generally thought to be caused by heat, moisture, and decaying vegetation, he believed that it was caused by living organisms more than gases. He spoke at length on the medicines used to treat malaria, including quinine, showing its dangers as well as its benefits. The paper was “warmly received” and accepted for approval by the society. He also presented several other papers on medical topics to the State Medical Society of Arkansas over the years, covering topics that ranged from gunshot wounds to sciatica. The October 17, 1885, the Journal of the American Medical Association contained an article by Orto titled “Injections of Ether in Sciatica.”

He remained in Walnut Ridge for ten years before moving to Pine Bluff in September 1883. For several years, in addition to his private practice in Pine Bluff, he was surgeon for several railroad companies as well as senior surgeon of the infirmary in Pine Bluff.

In 1898, at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, Orto volunteered for military service, serving at the rank of major. He was appointed surgeon of the Second Arkansas Volunteer Infantry on May 9, 1898, and served as brigade surgeon at Camp George H. Thomas, a military training camp in Walker County, Georgia, until October 8, 1898. At that time, he resigned and returned to private practice in Pine Bluff.

Orto was president of several professional societies and boards. He was president of the State Medical Society of Arkansas in 1890, and also served as vice president and treasurer. Upon his urging during a presidential address, the society began publishing a monthly journal, which was edited and published by a board of trustees to which he was appointed by the association. (In the same address, he warned against the overuse of procedures such as exploratory incisions and removal of the fallopian tubes and ovaries.)

According to the New York Medical Journal, the journal “will doubtless aid materially in furthering the society’s work.” He also served as president of the Jefferson County Medical Society. For thirteen years, beginning in 1908, he was president of the Pine Bluff Board of Health, and he was also president of the Jefferson County Board of Medical Examiners for a time.

Leaving his private practice, he became the second president of Simmons National Bank in Pine Bluff beginning the year it was founded, 1903, until his death in 1923. In 1907, while still president of Simmons, he was named president of the Pine Bluff North and South Railroad Company, which had received a charter from the state in 1905 to build a railroad from Pine Bluff to Lonoke (Lonoke County), about forty-six miles. In 1908, he was elected president of Travelers Fire Insurance Company of Pine Bluff, but it ceased operations that year.

Orto was a Democrat and a member of the Free and Accepted Masons. He died on January 22, 1923, and was buried in Bellwood Cemetery in Pine Bluff.

For additional information:
Leslie, James W. Pine Bluff and Jefferson County: A Pictorial History. Virginia Beach, VA: The Donning Company, 1981.

Orto, Z. “The President’s Annual Address.” Arkansas State Medical Society Journal 1 (July 1890): 3–10. Online at https://archive.org/stream/journalofstateme1189stat/journalofstateme1189stat_djvu.txt (accessed July 22, 2014).

Ann Orto Liggio
Houston, Texas

Last Updated: 08/01/2014