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24 Vintage Pictures of Doctors At Work

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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.

Exams

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.

Surgery

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.

Presentations

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.

Research

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.

Offices

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.

Home Visits

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?

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The Body
11 Facts About the Thumb
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The human body is an amazing thing. For each one of us, it's the most intimate object we know. And yet most of us don't know enough about it: its features, functions, quirks, and mysteries. Our series The Body explores human anatomy, part by part. Think of it as a mini digital encyclopedia with a dose of wow.

When it comes to the fingers on your hand, the thumb definitely does its own thing. Thumbs only have two bones, so they're obviously shorter, and they play a very important role that no other finger can claim; thanks to their unique saddle-like joint shape, and a little muscle known as the abductor pollicis brevis, you can bend and stretch your thumbs opposite your fingers to grip things. This is why they're known as "opposable thumbs." To bring you these 11 facts about the thumb, Mental Floss spoke with three experts on this unique digit: Barbara Bergin, an orthopedic surgeon in Houston; Loren Fishman, medical director of Manhattan Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, in NYC; and Ryan Katz, attending hand surgeon at the Curtis Hand Center, located at the Medstar Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore.

1. OPPOSABLE THUMBS MAY HAVE FREED UP OUR ANCESTORS' MOUTHS FOR LANGUAGE.

The evolution of a thumb helped our ancestors evolve to be better at defense, allowing for throwing and clubbing activities. Moreover, Fishman says, it may have even contributed to our cognitive function. "Some say this is why we have language," he says, "because we can hold things in our hands and [therefore] use our mouths for something else—such as discussing the functions of the thumb."

2. THUMBS HAVE THEIR OWN PULSE.

You might have noticed that medical professionals take a pulse with the middle and index finger. The reason is because there's a big artery in the thumb, the princeps pollicis artery, and arteries pulse, making it difficult to feel a pulse in a neck if you're using your thumb.

3. THE THUMB SEPARATES US FROM OTHER ANIMALS. MOSTLY.

"The thumb is wonderful. It evolved in such a way that we can use it to do so many amazing things, and it's one of the things that separates us from other animals," Bergin says. A handful of other animals, mostly primates, have opposable thumbs, or toes, as the case may be. These include orangutans, chimpanzees, a phylum of frogs known as phyllomedusa, some lemurs, and giant pandas—although their thumb-like apparatus is really just an extra sesamoid bone that acts like a thumb.

4. TOES CAN BECOME THUMBS.

If you should lose a thumb, fear not, says Katz. "It can be rebuilt by surgeons using your big toe." This specialized surgery uses microvascular surgery techniques to transfer your big toe to your hand, where it will function almost exactly as your thumb did. "The toe is then brought to life by sewing together small arteries and veins under a microscope," Katz says, a complicated surgery that has become vastly more sophisticated over the years. The second toe can be used too, as you can see in this medical journal, but we warn you: It's not for the faint of heart.

5. … BUT IS A THUMB WORTH LOSING A TOE OVER?

It may not seem like a big deal to lose one thumb—after all, you've got another one. But Katz cites the American Medical Association's "Guides to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment" [PDF], which states your thumb is so important that a complete amputation "will result in a 40 percent impairment to the whole hand." In fact, they claim that it would take "a complete amputation of the middle, ring, and small fingers to equal the impairment of an amputated thumb."

6. IT'S BETTER THAN HAVING YOUR HAND SEWN TO YOUR FOOT.

Katz also points out that "there used to be a common surgical procedure for thumb reconstruction, where the patient's hand was sewn to their foot for a period of time." This procedure was called the Nicoladani procedure, after the German surgical innovator Carol Nicoladoni. "It was a precursor to transplant surgery and plastic or reconstructive surgery as we know it today," he says.

7. YOUR THUMB MAKES AN ASTONISHINGLY WIDE VARIETY OF MOTIONS.

Other than pinching and grasping, Katz points out that the thumb "translates, rotates, and flexes all at once." This coordinated set of motions provides strength and dexterity. "Thus it's the thumb that allows us to easily pen an essay, turn a nut, pick up a coin, or button a shirt."

8. THAT DEXTERITY ALSO MAKES IT FRAGILE.

The thumb may appear to only have two knuckles, but it actually has a third, right above the wrist. This is called the first carpometacarpal joint. If that starts to hurt, or gets big enough to look like a bump or a mass, you may have carpometacarpal joint disorder (CMC), a common condition that is partly genetic and partly from repetitive use, according to Bergin. "You can get arthritis in the other joints, too, but this one is the most debilitating," she says. "First it becomes painful, and then you lose the ability to use it." Surgery can help with the pain, but it won't restore full mobility.

9. PAIN IN YOUR THUMB MAY REQUIRE LIFESTYLE CHANGES.

Bergin suggests small lifestyle changes so you don't need to grip anything too hard can make a huge difference, such as buying milk jugs with handles or using an electric toothbrush. "There are a lot of things we can do [to help] on a daily basis that shouldn't affect our quality of life," she suggests.

10. SWIPING RIGHT MIGHT BE DANGEROUS.

While we generally associate thumb arthritis with older people, Bergin says she now sees it in people in their forties and even thirties. Other studies have suggested that frequent phone use can be damaging. "There must be a genetic component to premature wearing of the thumb," she says. If it runs in your family, it's a good idea to be proactive and try to avoid repetitive gripping activities.

11. WHAT IT MEANS IF YOUR THUMB IS NUMB.

If instead of pain you're experiencing numbness of the thumb that extends to your index and middle fingers, you may be showing early symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. Fortunately, this isn't an emergency. "The condition takes a long time to become a big problem" Bergin says. People can sometimes help the condition by wearing wrist braces and getting physical therapy. If you just can't take it, "you can get surgery at any point if you failed to improve with bracing," she says. The surgery can reduce mobility, but it should take away the numbness and pain.

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photography
This Is What Flowers Look Like When Photographed With an X-Ray Machine
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Dr. Dain L. Tasker, “Peruvian Daffodil” (1938)

Many plant photographers choose to showcase the vibrant colors and physical details of exotic flora. For his work with flowers, Dr. Dain L. Tasker took a more bare-bones approach. The radiologist’s ghostly floral images were recorded using only an X-ray machine, according to Hyperallergic.

Tasker snapped his pictures of botanical life while he was working at Los Angeles’s Wilshire Hospital in the 1930s. He had minimal experience photographing landscapes and portraits in his spare time, but it wasn’t until he saw an X-ray of an amaryllis, taken by a colleague, that he felt inspired to swap his camera for the medical tool. He took black-and-white radiographs of everything from roses and daffodils to eucalypti and holly berries. The otherworldly artwork was featured in magazines and art shows during Tasker’s lifetime.

Selections from Tasker's body of work have been seen around the world, including as part of the Floral Studies exhibition at the Joseph Bellows Gallery in San Diego in 2016. Prints of his work are also available for purchase from the Stinehour Wemyss Editions and Howard Greenberg Gallery.

Dr. Dain L. Tasker, “Philodendron” (1938)
Dr. Dain L. Tasker, “Philodendron” (1938)

X-ray image of a rose.
Dr. Dain L. Tasker, “A Rose” (1936)

All images courtesy of Joseph Bellows Gallery.

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