Every few years Eugene Smith’s classic Life magazine photostory is uncovered again.
In the image at the top of the page, a rural doctor is shown after a late night operation in which he had failed to save the life of a pregnant woman and her baby.
This extraordinary historic record, beautifully captured, follows a new young doctor, Ernest Ceriani, one year into his experience in rural America in the late 1940s. The item was a massive success with the public, portraying the dedicated practice of a single-handed doctor providing an extraordinarily wide range of services in a remote community. It captures the ups and downs, trauma and unpredictability of practice there.
The story was promoted by the American Medical Association, concerned about the future of private general practice, in the year that the NHS was created in the UK. Responses were mixed: Dr Ceriani said it made his life look much worse than the reality; the citizens that they came across as a backward civilisation; the AMA was upset that messages about wider issues were omitted; but the public was impressed, and Life Magazine delighted. It remains moving today.
The UK equivalent of Dr Ceriani is perhaps Dr John Sassall in A Fortunate Man, a UK word-and-picture account of a single-handed rural practitioner in 1960s Britain.
- The 1948 Life article in full (Google books)
- Eugene Smith, photojournalist (Wikipedia)
- The story behind the story: Dr Bob Anderson (YouTube, 40 mins), founder of the division of Medical Humanities at New York University, was from Colorado, and returned there. He often used this series in his teaching, and delivers a fascinating account on the backstory in this recorded lecture. Leisurely paced but with revealing insights. (2022: unfortunately this video has been made private.)
- A bit more background from the aboutphotography blog
- Images copyright (C) Magnum Photos