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From 1925: Society member reflects on 60 years of medical progress

Sitting down with lawyer and historian Fred L. Holmes in 1925, Charles S. Sheldon, MD, of Madison, who was then 83 years old, shared his perspectives on the advancement of medicine over the previous 60 years. This was subsequently published in the January 1926 issue of WMJ.

Commenting on the sharp contrast of the medical profession from 1865 to 1925, Dr. Sheldon, who had served as secretary and then president of the Society, said the 19th Century physician had no medical aids for treating and diagnosing diseases—only his wits. The microscope might have been in use back then, but it “was only a toy for the curious.”

“Surgery, in the modern sense, did not exist,” Dr. Sheldon said. “With no knowledge of asepsis (prevention of infection), the cranial and abdominal cavities were sacred precincts, never to be rashly invaded except at the risk of life itself.

“We hardly knew the appendix existed and we called appendicitis ‘peri-cecal abscess’ and ‘inflammation of the bowels,’ he continued. “As to the teeth and the tonsils and several other features of the anatomy, we knew that we had them and that was about all. We had no trained nurses nor training schools for nurses, no laboratories, no specialists except in large cities and, of course, no modern clinics.”

However, “tremendous progress” was made in pathology, diagnosis and surgery; the discovery of bacteriology alone revolutionized medicine, according to Dr. Sheldon. And unlike their 19th Century counterparts, physicians in 1925 had the X-ray machine; antitoxins for diphtheria, rabies and tetanus; control over typhoid, yellow and scarlet fever and syphilis; better equipped hospitals and laboratories and more rational notions about the nature of disease. But as much as this helps the physician, he said, Dr. Sheldon also cautioned his colleagues to guard against complacency.

“If we depend too wholly upon our machinery is there not danger of a mechanical—a machine-like profession?” he said. “For machinery cannot and must not take the place of our minds.”

Test your knowledge!

What was the original name of the Director’s Award when it was established in 1928? If you know the answer or would like to take a guess, e-mail Jennifer Wieman by noon, Wednesday, June 1. Good luck!

Thomas Zoch, MD, correctly answered last week’s question. Hoyt E. Dearholt, a past president of the Society, was the executive secretary of the Wisconsin Anti-Tuberculosis Association (WATA) when the Society moved into its first permanent office in WATA’s building in 1923. The Society was given office space by WATA rent free, because the Society couldn’t afford to pay rent for the first year.

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