The Rare Books & Manuscripts Section of the Miner Library recently acquired a small collection of correspondence – some twenty letters in all – sent to Herman Reeve Ainsworth, M.D. in the 1870s and 80s. Ainsworth was an 1866 medical graduate of New York University, who practiced his entire career in Addison, Steuben County, New York. A physician of some standing, Ainsworth was president of the Steuben County Medical Society in 1874 and served as vice-president of the Medical Society of the State of New York between 1905 and 1907. He was also a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Nine of the twenty letters written to Dr. Ainsworth are from patients. They provide a somewhat startling view into smalltown and rural medical pratice late in the 19th century. In an age before telephones or motorized transportation, patients who lived some distance from their physician’s office needed to contact him or her through the mails. In one moving letter dated 24 August 1895, the husband of a patient in nearby Woodhull, N.Y. writes, “Dear Sir I want you to come up and see my wife. She is sick. Bring along your instruments to make an examination of her womb. I want you to day. Be sure and come.”
A letter from a female patient across the border in Little Marsh, Tioga Co., Pennsylvania, indicates the difficulties or delays patients might experience in getting their medication: “Dr. Ainsworth: I think your medicine has helped me, but I need more … If you could send me some medicine to Woods-Corners Monday, I can get it as my brother will be there. If not, send me a prescription.”
Some of Ainsworth correspondence pertains to billing. The father of one of his patients wrote Ainsworth on 4 June, 1893: “I think it a bout time I paid you for treating our girls eyes. Send in your bill.”
The difficulties of a rural practice during the 1890s is revealed in the latest dated piece of correspondence in the collection. The daughter of one of his patients in a nearby town chides Ainsworth: “You could not have regarded my mother’s condition as serious, when you never came to see her. She might have died. The people around here will now surely say, as they did last winter, you must be afraid you were not going to be paid for your services.”
The remainder of the correspondence in the Ainsworth collection was written to him by other physicians regarding patients Ainsworth had previously seen. No phone calls, no e-mails – simply a letter that required a response through the same lengthy medium: the U.S. Mail.