Eugene Smith's Country Doctor
Dr. Ernest Ceriani makes a house call on foot © Eugene Smith
Dr. Ceriani sits at bedside of a patient as he assesses flu symptoms during a house call. When Smith began "Country Doctor," he shot for a period of time with no film in his camera, to help Ceriani get used to his presence without wasting precious film © Eugene Smith
In the backseat of a car, Dr. Ceriani administers a shot of morphine to a 60-year-old tourist from Chicago, seen here with her grandson, who was suffering from a mild heart disturbance © Eugene Smith
Dr. Ceriani has stitched the girl's wound to minimize scarring, but he must now find a way to tell the parents that her eye cannot be saved and they must take her a specialist in Denver to have it removed © Eugene Smith
Though he had no vacations and few days off, Dr. Ceriani did have use of a small hospital, which was equipped with an X-ray machine, an autoclave and an oxygen tent, among other medical necessities. Here, he explains an X-ray -- which he developed himself -- to one of his rancher patients © Eugene Smith
After finishing a surgery that lasted until 2 AM, Dr. Ceriani stands exhausted in the hospital kitchen with a cup of coffee and a cigarette. "The nurses," LIFE noted, "constantly admonish him to relax and rest, but because they are well aware that he cannot, they keep a potful of fresh coffee simmering for him at all hours." Eugene Smith's empathy as a photographer, as well as his his capacity for capturing on film the tumult of emotions endured by men and women under duress, were hallmarks of his work and continue to astound and influence photographers to this day. In 1979, the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund was founded to support those working in the profoundly humanistic style of photography to which Smith dedicated his life and his art © Eugene Smith
A child's worried parents look on as Dr. Ceriani, surrounded by nurses, examines their 2-year-old daughter © Eugene Smith
85-year-old Thomas Mitchell came to the hospital with a gangrenous leg. Knowing that Mitchell might not be strong enough to endure the necessary amputation, Ceriani had been postponing surgery. When Mitchell finally rallied, the doctor gently carried him from the basement ward up to the operating room of the hospital, which had no elevator. Photographs like this helped make "Country Doctor" one of the most memorable and moving photo essays ever published in LIFE © Eugene Smith
The image of the kindly, tireless country doctor, black bag in hand, heading out in all kinds of weather, at all hours, to make house calls on patients old and young, rich and poor, is so ingrained in the American psyche that it's taken on the shape of a national myth.
Today, that heartwarming myth is just about the only link most Americans have with medicine as it was practiced in the previous century. Even if an American is fortunate enough to have health insurance -- and is one of the distinct minority of patients who actually see a general practitioner on a regular basis -- the idea of a doctor known to everyone in the community, a doctor who makes house calls and treats anyone and everyone from (literally) the cradle to the grave, is so alien to our everyday reality of HMOs, endless paperwork, byzantine deductibles, and all the other nonsense that accompanies and encumbers American "health care" in the 21st century that it might as well be something we once read in a fairy tale.
But such a figure did, in fact, exist in communities all over the country -- and thankfully, we have proof. In the summer of 1948, the great LIFE photographer W. Eugene Smith spent three weeks in the ranching town of Kremmling, Colorado, shadowing general practitioner Ernest Ceriani. Smith's powerful, intimate images capture in poignant detail the emotional and physical challenges faced by this modest, hard-working rural physician -- and gradually reveal the inner workings and the outer trappings of what was clearly a uniquely rewarding, if tremendously demanding and wearying, life. When first published, "Country Doctor" was an instant classic, setting Smith firmly on a path as a master of the unique art form of the photoessay, and cementing his status as one of the most passionate and influential photojournalists of the 20th century. LIFE.com recently republished "Country Doctor, in its entirety, for the very first time online. The photoessay is a testament to dedication, skill, and compassion -- and a reminder of what, as a country, America has lost ...
Ben Cosgrove, deputy editor LIFE.com