23 April 2013

Physicians in the family

Dr. John Warren
What kinds of records can you find if your ancestor was in the medical profession?

In many ways, physicians are public figures, well-known in their communities. You'll find them listed in city directories, featured in town histories (the so-called mug books), and mourned in their obituaries. They may have advertised their services in local newspapers, published scholarly articles on their research or medical cases (perhaps in the New England Journal of Medicine, first published in 1812), lectured at medical schools, or kept detailed journals. Their medical records may have been deposited in archives, from local historical and genealogical societies and museums to medical associations, hospitals, and universities.

Finding the Degree

Not all doctors, nurses, midwives, and others in the medical profession attended medical schools. Some were apprentices, sometimes taking over their mentors' practices. Over time, the barbers and bonesetters became degreed medical professionals.

Massachusetts is home to four medical schools: Harvard Medical School, founded in 1782; New England Female Medical College, founded in 1848, which became Boston University School of Medicine in 1873; Tufts University School of Medicine, founded in 1893; and University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, founded in 1962. Look for school histories, alumni directories, yearbooks, reunion records, and archival holdings. 

AMA Directory

The American Medical Association (AMA) was founded in 1847. At the turn of the 20th century, the AMA started to collect information on physicians nationwide, whether or not they were AMA members, and compiled its first American Medical Directory in 1906. Information on each doctor was kept on 4 x 6” index cards until 1970, when the AMA started to use a computer database to track doctors instead. The cards of physicians who died prior to 1970, now called the AMA Deceased Physicians Masterfile, became part of the AMA Archives. In 1993, the AMA printed the two-volume Directory of Deceased American Physicians 1804-1929, with biographical profiles. It is available as part of a paid subscription on Ancestry.com. A finding aid for the Masterfile is available online, to help you find doctors who died between 1906-1969 within the 87.5 linear feet of original documents. FamilySearch has images online. 

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