In honor of National Doctor’s Day, here’s a look at all the ways the job has changed—but mostly stayed the same. Images all courtesy of The Library of Congress.
The long wait, examination bed, fluorescent lights, they're all the same today as they were long ago. Here's how a basic exam would go over seventy years ago...pretty much the same as it goes today.
Both now and then, doctor appointments would start out with a review of the patient’s vital signs like Doctor Buck did to this precious little boy back in 1940, as photographed by Marion Wolcott.
When the patient was sick, the doctor would take out his wooden stick and look down their throat, something we’ve all experienced first hand. Image taken by Russell Lee in 1941.
If something hurt, the doctor would take a closer look at it the way this doctor examined his patient’s fractured arm in 1942. Image taken by Arthur Rothstein.
No one has ever enjoyed getting their shots, as you can tell by this picture, taken in 1941 by Russell Lee.
Once a diagnosis was made, the patient would get a prescription, just as they do today, although these kinds of things have become much more computerized in the last decade. Image shot by John Collier in 1943.
Of course, for the little ones, doctor’s appointments tend to end on a positive note with a lovely lollipop. So yes, even your grandmother was bribed into getting her shots as this 1942 image by John Vachone confirms.
While surgical techniques have changed drastically over the last seventy years, operating rooms look largely the same, especially to laymen.
Of course, one of the most important parts of any surgery now or then is the scrubbing up before hand. After all, the last things you want around open holes in the human body are germy hands. Image taken by Russell Lee in 1941.
Emergency tracheotomies are nothing new, as this 1942 image by Fritz Henle shows. Just like today, the area around the operating site is covered in sterile cloth and the nurse readies the next tool to help expedite the surgical process.
Just as today, doctors don’t spend all their time with patients; they also have to do plenty of presentations.
Here you see a doctor presenting a paper to members of the Board of Directors for the Greenbelt Maryland Medical Association, photographed by Marion Wolcott in 1939. These presentations look just as dull nowadays as they did back then.
Just as they do today, doctors also provide presentations to members of the public to help them improve their health or better respond to emergencies. In this image, taken by Russell Lee in 1942, a doctor shows a pressure spot to help stop arterial bleeding during a first aid class.
Similarly, many doctors focus their careers exclusively on research and development of new treatments rather than on helping people who are already injured or sick.
These three gentlemen are testing out a new style of respirator on a lab rabbit. While there is no date on this specific image, it seems to have been taken some time around 1890.
To develop a vaccine for typhus, doctors first had to collect ticks from around the world to ensure they had every possible strain of the disease. Here is Doctor Cooley of the United States Health Service Rocky Mountain Laboratory with his collection, as photographed by John Vachon in 1942.
Doctor Herrald R. Cox then was able to develop a vaccine using the eggs from Dr. Cooley’s collection, also shot by Mr. Lee.
These days, most medical offices look like sterile office buildings or hospitals, but in the early half of the last century, they had a lot more style and flavor.
Granted, you probably wouldn’t really want to visit this quack doctor’s office, but it’s hard to deny that his sign was far more inviting than anything you’ll see today. And, in case you were wondering, even photographer Arthur Rothstein labeled this doctor as a quack when he shot this image in Pittsburgh back in 1938.
Dr. J.W. Faulk’s sign was far classier than the quack doctor’s sign, photographed in Louisiana by Russell Lee in 1938, giving you a fair indication that he was a much more reliable medical professional. There’s something welcoming about this sign that would be nice to see even today.
In a few tiny towns that have changed little throughout the years, you still might actually see a doctor’s office that looks just like this one, but for the most part, cozy offices like this are a thing of the past when it comes to the medical industry. Image taken in Louisiana by Marion Wolcott in 1940.
Female and Minority Doctors
Yes, it was uncommon to have a female or African American doctor before the civil rights movement, but it was still possible. Unlike today though, these doctors would often be limited to only work with specific types of patients –women doctors usually worked exclusively with women and children and African American doctors were generally limited to working on patients of their own race.
This large group of female doctors would have been a rarity at any hospital, were it not for the fact that this image was taken in 1919, shortly after WWI ended. Since most male doctors were shipped overseas, the war period was quite a boom for females in the medical industry. Unfortunately, the end of the war meant that most of these women would most likely be fired shortly after this photo was taken to make room for their male counterparts who had just returned from the field.
Dr. Kate B. Karpeles here was quite extraordinary as she was one of the only female doctors to be contracted by the Army during WWI. When this picture was taken in 1938, she was serving as the president of the American Medical Women’s Association and was actively petitioning congress to allow women to serve in the Army on an equal basis with men during times of national emergency.
This doctor offered public health services through the Farm Security Administration to babies of migratory mothers who traveled to work on the pea harvest in Imperial Valley. Famed photographer Dorothea Lange captured this image in 1939 as part of her work with the FSA.
This doctor performed similar services for New Jersey’s agricultural workers through the FSA although he had his own private practice in town as well. Image taken by John Collier in 1942.
The concept of separate but equal facilities covered all areas of life and business. Here is an African American doctor looking after one of his patients in one of Chicago’s “blacks only” hospitals as photographed by Russell Lee in 1941.
For all the areas where the medical profession has remained the same, here’s one way it has changed. These days, it seems only millionaires can afford to have a doctor visit them at home, but only a short while ago, the practice was fairly common, particularly in more rural areas.
This South Carolina family needed malaria medication and their local clinic doctor was happy to bring it by their house for them. Image taken by Marion Wolcott 1939.
Here we see Doctor Tabor giving little Roscoe Loudin an exam in the comfort of his own home crib, as captured by Arthur Rothstein in 1941.
While most adults don’t mind having to visit the doctor’s office here and there, it’s easy to see how much more comforting an at-home visit would be for a sick child like this one photographed by John Vachon in 1942.
I know we have plenty of doctors reading the site, so do any of you have any thoughts on how your field has changed or stayed the same throughout the years? And for the rest of you, have you noticed any big differences in the care you’ve received since you were a youngster?