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Placing country doctors in a golden age of medicine

By Sharon Gray | Nov. 26, 2012

The country doctor carrying a simple black bag is a powerful medical icon. During the recent 2012 Dr. Nigel Rusted Lectureship in Medical Humanities, Dr. Sasha Mullally examined the history of country doctors, rural medicine and the origins of contemporary challenges of providing remote health care.

This was the first memorial Dr. Nigel Rusted Lecture. Dr. Rusted died March 18, 2012, at the age of 104. His passion for the medical humanities prompted him to launch the Dr. Nigel Rusted Lectureship in Medical Humanities in 2003.

Dr. Mullally is an associate professor of history at the University of New Brunswick. She is author of Unpacking the Black Bag: Country Doctors and Rural Medicine in Canada and the United States, 1900-1950 (forthcoming, University of Toronto Press).

“The general image of a country doctor is an older male, part of the small town or community, who came to a patient’s home to help with whatever ailed the patient,” she said. “He operated as a single person, not a team.”

Dr. Mullally said little is known about medical care in the 1920s, '30s and '40s.

“Doctors in this time period were the first generation to use filing cabinets, but the files were destroyed upon their death. We get information from their writings and biographies, but first-hand stories can give more information than edited versions.”

The tales of the work of country doctors are often colourful and filled with adventure. Dr. Mullally said these stories can inspire future medical students.

“They are inspiring stories, larger-than-life at times.”