Monday, March 18, 2013

The Doctor Is In: John Nelson Bell Papers in the DMR

John Nelson Bell, after 1902
If you grew up watching movies or television shows set in the rural United States, you likely have a mental picture of an idyllic community where the local doctor played a central role in everyday life by visiting patients in their homes to talk and care for whatever health needs arose. This might bring to mind scenes of Doc Gibbs, Doc Adams, or Doc Baker delivering babies, pulling out bullets, or setting broken bones without knowing if he would be paid in produce, cash, or just the appreciation of his neighbors. Anyone who is interested in examining how those fictional portrayals of small town medical practice compare to reality should take some time to explore the John Nelson Bell Papers in the Digital Media Repository.

John Nelson Bell was born in Morgantown, Virginia on April 21, 1858 to Henry and Louise (Swisher) Bell. He began teaching school at age sixteen and supplemented his education by taking classes at a normal school. He entered Starling Medical College in Columbus, Ohio in 1884 and left for the Medical College of Ohio two years later. As he neared the end of his studies, Bell learned that Samuel Jump, the practicing physician in Perry Township, Delaware County, Indiana, had received a presidential appointment as the Selma postmaster and would be moving to Liberty Township. After graduating from the Medical College of Ohio in the spring of 1888, Dr. Bell came to Delaware County to fill that vacancy in Perry Township and began his practice in New Burlington. He would continue to practice medicine in the Delaware County community of New Burlington for forty years.

First entries in Dr. Bell's daybook after starting practice in New Burlington in 1888 (Click to view full image)

The John Nelson Bell digital collection includes account books, daybooks, and medical treatment notes ranging from 1887-1922 that document the medical training and practice of John Nelson Bell in New Burlington, Indiana.  The account books in this digital collection document John Nelson Bell’s financial dealings including his charges for services, patients’ payment methods, and the cost of medical supplies. His daybooks document the schedule of a small town doctor as well as more detailed information such as patient names, general reasons for visits, and charges for services. His medical school and treatment notes document the training of medical doctors and common medical treatments at the turn of the century for a wide variety of maladies including burns, colic, hay fever, laryngitis, tetanus, and typhoid fever.

Account entry for John Ryan. Notice payments were made by cash, oats, and a pig. (Click to view full image)
After you have taken some time to explore this digital collection, get the discussion started by leaving a comment on this blog post. Discuss the similarities or differences you noticed between the fictional and historical life of a small town doctor. Point out any particularly interesting pieces of information you discovered in this collection. Record your memories of physicians in the small towns or rural communities where you grew up. We would be interested to know if any of your communities still have doctors with practices anything like that of John Nelson Bell.

To learn more about John Nelson Bell, check out the John Nelson Bell papers finding aid and the John Nelson Bell Photographs. Researchers interested in the history of  medical doctors and practices in Delaware County are welcome to visit the archives to examine related collections including the Clay Ball collection, W. Philip Ball papersGeneral William Harrison Kemper papers, and Lall G. Montgomery collection

Contact us at or 765-285-5078 if you have any questions about these or other collections in the archives.

1 comment:

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