Making Waco Men Better Since 1852

Joe Willis

Joel “Dr. Joe” Selman Willis


JS Willis

Joel Selman Willis was born in Barnesville, Georgia and came with his family to Texas when he was eight years old. They moved to Waco at the close of the Civil War in 1865. He attended Waco University(later to become Baylor) and Washigton and Lee University in Virginia. Robert E. Lee personally wrote a letter of recommendation for PM Willis which gained him entry to the University of Virginia’s medical program. He eventually returned to Waco where his medical practice was considered to be the premiere such practice in the area.

For some time, Willis served in various roles leading the Waco Medical Association. His office was located in various buildings, usually on properties he owned. According to an 1886 map, his home was located just west of the 4th and Clay intersection, right about where the downtown Post Office is today and his office was located across present-day Austin Ave from where our masonic hall was then on the Square. For awhile, he had his office in Behren’s Drug Store. Two teams of horses were necessary for Willis to fulfill his medical tasks. Every evening he came home for dinner and a nap before heading back out with a fresh team of horses. His neighbor, PM Elgin, relates:

“His early death was probably due to a fidelity to his profession… No night was ever too cold, nor client too poor, to command his services. I would get in the buggy with him and take the reins and he would drop off to sleep. I would drive him to his appointments… and he would sleep between visits and on the way home. When I had driven him home, his boy would take his horses and by the time I could eat my supper, I would see him hitching up the other team to fill other appointments and he would be out most of the night. A large part of this work was charity work, but from whatever source the call of duty came, he always fulfilled it.”


At an 1874 major event hosted by Waco Commandery No. 10(a Christian appendant body of Waco Lodge 92), Bro. Willis gave the following short speech about a devotion to Truth:

“As for all other things, they are mortal and transient; truth alone is unchangeable and everlasting. The benefits we receive from it are subject to no variations or vicissitudes of time and fortune. In her judgment is no unrighteousness, and she is the strength, wisdom, power, and majesty of all ages. Blessed be the God of Truth!”

“Dr. Joe” served as Senior Warden of 92 four consecutive years before ascending to the East in 1877. While Master of Waco 92 in 1877, he was also President of the Waco Medical Association. The late 1870s were a trying time for the lodge. While we enjoyed the benefits of having a magnificent new building, the cost was burdensome. Total expense came to $8671.71. As Master of the Lodge, Willis was approved for taking out a $200 loan on behalf of the lodge to pay our Grand Lodge dues. Then, at a meeting soon thereafter, Brother Speight read a letter to the lodge from Waco National Bank in which the financial institution threatened to sue the lodge unless it settled the total amount owed from a couple of different loan: $382.92. The brethren immediately responded with $1400 in pledges and $515 in cash. Our debts were erased and then some. When Willis died in 1886, he was but 37 years old. Cause of death: overdose of bromides. An account of his life and death is given in “The History of the Waco Medical Association” by W.O. Wilkes:

“Dr. Joe had a brilliant mind and excellent opportunities, of which he took every advantage; in addition he was genial, sociable and friendly-a good mixer-and he was therefore very successful in practice. He was called into consultation far and near, and accumulated quite a fortune in the fourteen years of his practice. He was a high tension hard worker and go-getter, full of energy and enthusiasm, working day and night far beyond his physical strength, which was not really great. He suffered a nervous breakdown in 1886; which was not surprising when we consider his various outside duties and interests in addition to keeping up with the largest general practice any doctor in Waco had enjoyed up to that time. He died of an overdose of bromidia, accidentally administered, on July 6, 1886, in his thirty-seventh year. If he had conserved his strength and energy there is no estimating to what heights he might have risen in a normal span of life.”