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The Story of a Rural Physician in the Depression

Updated on April 27, 2015

1930's Style Physician's Bag

Early doctors carried all their tools in a bag like this.
Early doctors carried all their tools in a bag like this.

The Old-Time Rural Physician

This is another in my series of "farm stories" about my Dad's experience growing up on a farm in the Great Depression.

At that time, physicians made house calls. Doc Miller went out whenever he was needed in a very large car (Cadillac?) something of the 1920s to 1930s era. He carried his tools in a leather doctor's bag at the time.

Both my father and his brother were delivered at home by Doc Miller. Grandma was a sturdy woman and there were no problems. Two healthy boys arrived into the world.

While growing up, Dad remembers some of Doc Miller's calls. Dad broke his nose playing football, for instance, and it required Doc Miller to reset it.

Ordinary incidents like kids falling out of trees or women wounding themselves by washing breakable dishes or kitchen knife cuts could generate a trip to see Doc Miller.

In addition to such standard injuries, those on farms were at greater risk. Farm implements could be rip and tear far beyond the injuries described in the above paragraph. Please see my article, Life and Limb: A True Story From an American Farm.

Dad said Doc Miller charged $5 per call. I was greatly surprised at such a seemingly small sum! But, Dad said it was, in fact, quite a large fee for that time! Dad is an octogenarian.

Many people Doc Miller treated were under terrible financial strain. If the person could not pay for the call, he still made the call. Sadly, he had to charge more for people who could pay to subsidize the others. Dad said Doc Miller stated, "I take the Hippocratic Oath very seriously." and would help anyone at anytime if he were able, regardless of their ability to pay.

Doc Miller's Vehicle

Dad believes the vehicle used by Doc Miller was a Cadillac. It was maintained regularly by mechanics so that there would be almost no failure.

Dad remembers that one mechanic once likened maintaining a car to maintaining the health of a patient. To this, Doc Miller said that he could hardly turn off the engine while providing care to a person. Enough said!

Early Cadillac

This may have been like Doc Miller's car.
This may have been like Doc Miller's car.

A Great Example of a British Country Doctor

Compare to the Modern Day Physician

Britain's health care in the 1960s seems positively fantastic compared to the USA with integrated services, etc. The doctor was on call virtually at all times!

Compare this now to the USA modern day physician. Most operate in group practice, not a bad idea to avoid too much fatigue. When I was bearing children, we used a three-doctor practice. I knew each doctor well, as there are many visits during a pregnancy.

However, malpractice lawsuits have eroded health care in the USA so much that physicians and nurses are often reluctant to render help at the scene of an accident they may witness for fear of being sued. Additionally, the price of medicine has skyrocketed such that fewer companies will pick up the tab for it, as was done regularly in the 1960s. Many companies do not offer it at all or have employees pay heavy premiums for it.

I have several favorite game shows. Persistently, I see advertisements to sue pharmaceutical companies, who of course have very deep pockets. So the price of medications have soared and will certainly soar much more. I was last quoted $600 per month for a medication! Sorry, I will see what generic is available!

Physicians (and now pharmacists), have become so wary of lawyers that they pay heavily for malpractice insurance. One does not have to wonder very long why medical care costs far outstrip inflation!

Once, with an abdominal injury, I called a taxi rather than an ambulance to get me to hospital. Ambulances are well outfitted, but, a taxi cost of $40 USD, is far less than the $800-$1000 per ambulance cost--a virtual fortune for me!

Sadly, there also seems to be much less ongoing care with patients. Doctors frequently move around. Specialists get paid much higher, so fewer doctors want to perform routine family medicine.

Doc Miller's Legacy

A local newspaper wrote that Doc Miller had delivered over 1000 babies, whose names were listed along with my father's and uncle's names in one edition of the paper. This was a tribute to the many sleepless nights and interrupted schedules Doc Miller experienced delivering them.

When Doc Miller retired, his son took over the practice. He was known as Doc Miller II and operated in the same farm county my Dad grew up in. Together, the Doc Millers made up more than 50 years of rural family medical service to all that needed it.

Hurrah for any such Doc Millers remaining in rural medical care, which is now highly under served.

About My Farm Nostalgia Hubs

One in a series on farm life and growing up on a farm as recalled by my Dad.

The first hub I wrote about involved the loss of a limb by one of the family dogs, A Pet Rescue Story: Brownie, the Three Legged Dog.

The second hub was about a near-accident my Uncle Don had, Life and Limb: A True Story From an American Farm.

My third was the Hubnugget winning The Story of a One-Room Schoolhouse.

Another was Rabies Scare: A True Story From an American Farm.

Ene next was on Farm Life During the Prohibition.

Finally I began to include my ex-husband's side of the family in what I remember from his father talking about: Hunting Rattlers as 1930s Employment.

The response of readers to these stories touched me personally and readers have continued to ask for more stories! So now I regularly call Dad so he can continue relating these stories and I will continue to publish them as he does. Thanks for reading! -- Laura in Denver


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    • Laura in Denver profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Deibel 

      6 years ago from Aurora

      Thank you so kindly.

      Dad often wondered how he had the stamina to keep going throughout the night, when necessary. I don't know about helpers--Doc Miller's son did succeed him.

      People's lives were their passion. Ma Miller Probably had to keep food warm at all times.

    • Seeker7 profile image

      Helen Murphy Howell 

      6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

      This is a fascinating story about the doctors from yester year. I think they did so much over and above what was expected of them!

      I remember one old lady called Jenny that I looked after - I'm in Scotland - she used to tell me stories about her mum who was a rural midwife - known as a 'howdie/howdy'. They would often work alongside country doctors. Jenny also said that, particularly in the coal mining areas where there was a lot of poverty, the howdie and doctors were sometimes paid using home made products such as jam, bread, preserves and other home made items. But often when the family had no money, then they didn't charge. But like your wonderful doctor in your article, they charged more well off folks a little more to subsidise their income.

      Your wonderful hub brought back so many memories of what Jenny used to tell me about her family way back in the late 19th century/early 20th.

      Fabulous hub + voted up!!

    • Laura in Denver profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Deibel 

      6 years ago from Aurora

      Doc Miller and son were tremendously generous with their time. Those who could pay paid a bit more to support those who could not, but all were treated equally.

      He was greatly respected and often written up in the local newspapers of the day.

      Sadly now in the US, physicians must be "lured" to practice in the countryside for a specified time by having an agreement that part medical training bills are paid, usually.

      The lucrative cities is where most US doctors want to go.

      A bicycling doctor--possible topic for you!!!!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      6 years ago from England

      Hi, its fascinating to hear about the Doctors of yesteryear, they seem to have more stamina, and a lot more care than nowadays, even over here in England where we have the wonderful National Health Service, and of course its free, the doctors don't seem to care as much. I remember our Doctor when I was small, he used to just pop in on occasion when he felt like it to see if everybody was fine, he always rode about on a bike, and was really friendly, not these days! great to read your old stories, thanks!


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