Professor examines 200 years of local medical history

Gwen KayIn writing a book compiling 200 years of local medical history, Dr. Gwen Kay of SUNY Oswego’s history department was able to dissect how doctors dealt with changes in their practice and the surrounding world.

“Celebrating Physicians Past and Present: The History of Local Medical Care, 1806-2006,” which commemorates the Onondaga County Medical Society’s bicentennial, has already sold out its initial run and is in its second printing. While it examines what happened locally, it applies to changes in medicine, in society and in technology that influenced doctors and patients everywhere.

Kay studied the Onondaga County Medical Society’s minutes, as well as newspaper articles and related materials, to co-author the book with Gerald W. Hoffman, the society’s executive director. Kay particularly covered developments from 1806 until around World War II.

She said that she expects those reading the book, especially doctors, will gain a greater appreciation of how much medical practices have evolved. Basic medical practices today became that way after World War II—with most of the ancillary changes involving technology—so many doctors even reaching retirement age may not be aware of how much medicine changed in preceding generations, she added.

Poring through the minutes revealed how the doctors dealt with the changes that impacted their profession and their patients. “As the technology changes, they talk about it,” she said. “It’s interesting to see people talking about ‘those new X-ray things.’”

But the book, first published in fall 2007, also demonstrates how the physicians’ meetings were concerned with the issues of the day, whether local or global. “For instance, there would be a cholera epidemic in Albany, and they would see it coming every time and say: ‘We don’t want this coming down the Erie Canal. How do we prevent it?’”

Since Upstate New York was at the vanguard of social movements from the mid-19th into the early 20th century, the notes offer glimpses into how attitudes changed to address hot topics.

“One of the physicians is a key figure in the Jerry Rescue,” Kay said of a famous citizen-led rescue of a former slave from Syracuse jailers. “People are talking about the temperance movement at all the right times. There are people advocating strongly for women to become part of the medical society. All the currents that came through Upstate New York are encompassed in the medical society.”

She also noted a practical change in detail of the society’s minutes when doctors taking minutes started handing them over to office managers to type. “The notes from the 19th century feature good handwriting and detailed transcripts of discussions, but once the minutes become typed, the descriptions become more basic and terse,” Kay said.

For more information on the book, contact the publishers, the Onondaga County Medical Society, at 424-8118 or

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(Posted: Feb 20, 2008)

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