What it was like to be a lone country doctor over a half-century ago: in pictures

You can now look (here) at Eugene Smith’s  fantastic photographic essay about what it was like to be a country doctor in the late 1940s. It was published in the old Life Magazine. I’ve seen a few of these amazing photographs over the years, but it’s wonderful to have them all collected in one place. This one is particularly compelling; it shows the doctor worrying over an injured child. I have a few personal reasons for finding these particular photographs so fascinating.

Smith took them in the course of the several weeks that he followed Dr. Ernest Ceriani around on his daily duties. Ceriani was the only doctor in Kremmling, Colorado. For that matter, he was the only doctor for many miles around. I know Kremmling, and from the photographs it doesn’t look to me that the town has changed all that much in sixty years. It’s still pretty remote — in the Middle Park of the Colorado Rockies, on the other side of the Continental Divide from Denver and its big-city medical facilities. Before Interstate 70 went through, the drive to Denver was a very big deal. It’s still a ways from Kremmling to I-70, but you don’t have to cross mountain passes to reach it. These days a doctor in Kremmling can call for air transport of a patient, something Dr. Ceriani couldn’t do, but air transport across the spine of the Rockies is still not a trivial thing. Even today Kremmling’s physicians need to be pretty self-sufficient, but in Dr. Ceriani’s day he was completely on his own.

The other reason I found these sixty-year-old black-and-white photographs compelling is that they strike a chord in my own family history. A hundred years ago my grandfather and his older brother were the only doctors in a similar small town out on the Western Minnesota prairies. Along with my grandmother, a nurse, they ran their own tiny hospital that was little more than a converted house. I have old photographs of him operating on patients in the 1940s, assisted in at least one photograph by my father, who had just finished medical school and was deciding his own medical career path. My grandfather’s life was very much like Dr. Ceriani’s was.

Those days are long gone, which is a good thing. Also gone are the days when an isolated country doctor had to do the best he could, without help from anybody.

The little hospital my grandfather and his brother built still exists, although it’s moved a few blocks down one of the few streets in the town. In its current location it’s even named after those two pioneers. Their pictures hang in the lobby.

The photos from Life in the link are a stunning glimpse into the past — I suggest you go and have a look.



6 responses to “What it was like to be a lone country doctor over a half-century ago: in pictures”

  1. Dianne McBrien Avatar
    Dianne McBrien

    What strikes me is the physical intimacy captured in the images–heads bowed together, worried onlookers huddling close, the doctor heaving the older guy upstairs. There’s almost a sense of ministry that pervades all of it.

    I think he also did a series of pictures on Pittsburgh steel workers at some point.

  2. Kandice Schwarz Avatar
    Kandice Schwarz

    Dr. Ceriani delivered me in 1954 and I have no doubt he saved my life at that time as I was an emergency and early delivery, which I’m sure was no easy feat. Dr. Ceriani had a wonderful way in which he “worked with me” as a child and I will be forever grateful to him for that. I hated going to the Dr, but I loved seeing Dr. Ceriani and his wonderful staff. I sure miss those days when the country Dr. was truly part of the community and sincerely cared for the families and the health of everyone he came in contact with. I was surprised to see such a recent article on the internet which included Dr. Ceriani and I thank you so much for honoring him, as well as stirring my memories of him.

  3. Thanks so much for your story. His story does remind me of my father’s and grandfather’s lives. My father delivered me in 1952 — he was the only doctor in the county.

  4. Maggie Enderle Avatar
    Maggie Enderle

    I worked for Dr. Ceriani in 1979 for a short time. He was a wonderful man!

  5. Hi Maggie:

    Thanks for your comment. He must have been getting on in age by 1979. But small town docs do tend to work longer. My own father was one, and he worked until he was 75 or so.

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