Shaping a Family Practice in Twentieth-Century Rural America

Shaping a Family Practice in Twentieth-Century Rural America

Constance Putnam

The tradition of rural general practice is strong in the United States. Even in the middle years of the twentieth century, many rural doctors worked out of offices in their homes and routinely made house calls. Domestically based rural medicine has traditionally been assumed to have lacked a "scientific" base (compared to urban, hospital-based medicine).

Generally omitted from this nostalgic picture is how rural practitioners incorporated science into their practices despite their rural locations as well as the extent to which these doctors could not have carried on without the direct contributions of their spouses. This paper sought to complicate the narrative of increasing professionalization in medicine during this period by demonstrating that knowledge production was taking place in rural settings as well. Though the science used and produced by rural GPs was unimpressive by modern academic standards, lab work and the use of emerging technologies were crucial. Further, gendered notions of who was "doing" that science need to be challenged. Many wives of GPs, neither nurses nor scientifically trained, learned on the job to be laboratory technicians and to run diagnostic and treatment equipment.

The analysis in this Working Group chapter was based on a unique archive of letters and other papers detailing the career of one rural GP and his wife, who—with no background in science—mastered the tasks essential to grounding his practice scientifically. Letters written by both the doctor and his wife were mined for evidence that the appropriation of "science" by the academy omits much.