So You Wanna Be a Doctor

Your physician or surgeon is definitely someone you want to be able to trust, but how do you know you can? Since Florida’s earliest territorial days, the government has required medical professionals to demonstrate their qualifications and be licensed in some way. The rules have changed a lot over the years, however, which makes for some interesting reading.

Pages from the journal of Dr. John M.W. Davidson of Gadsden County, describing treatments for various diseases (Collection M81-24, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to see a larger version of the image and a transcript.

Pages from the journal of Dr. John M.W. Davidson of Gadsden County, describing treatments for various diseases (Collection M81-24, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to see a larger version of the image and a transcript.

After Andrew Jackson formally took possession of West Florida on July 17, 1821, he immediately began passing ordinances laying out a new set of rules for the territory. In September, he issued an ordinance “for the preservation of health in the city of Pensacola” establishing a Board of Health for the city and granting the board powers to license physicians and make rules regulating the practice of medicine. When the territorial legislative council met for the first time the following year, the members passed an act establishing new boards of health in both Pensacola and St. Augustine, although the new law did not specifically say whether the boards would license physicians or not. They did, however, specify that all persons practicing law or medicine within the territory would pay $10 in licensing fees. That was a lot of money in the 1820s! The silver lining? Doctors were not liable for jury or militia duty.

Starting in 1824, the territorial legislative council got a little more serious about qualifications for doctors. That year, the council passed an act requiring anyone practicing medicine to file with the local county clerk either a copy of their diploma and a “certificate of moral character” or a certificate showing he had studied physiology or surgery for at least two years, either at a college or under the supervision of a reputable doctor or surgeon. If a prospective doctor went this latter route to be licensed, he also had to get the endorsement of two county judges.

An Act to Regulate the Admission of Physicians and Surgeons to Practice in This Territory, 1824 (Series 222, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to view a larger version.

An Act to Regulate the Admission of Physicians and Surgeons to Practice in This Territory, 1824 (Series 222, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to view a larger version.

On December 31, 1827, the legislative council established a territory-wide board of health called the Medical Board, initially consisting of Richard Weightman and William H. Simmons of St. Augustine, Robert A. Lacy of Key West, William D. Price and Lewis Willis of Tallahassee, Malcolm Nicholson of Gadsden County, William P. Hart of Jackson County, and C.Y. Fonda and John Brosnaham of Pensacola. All physicians wanting to practice medicine in Florida were supposed to come before the board for examination to be granted a license. If the applicant had a degree from “some regularly established medical university within the United States,” however, he did not have to take an examination.

Home of Dr. Malcolm Nicholson of Gadsden County, one of the first members of Florida's first territory-wide board of health, the Medical Board (1899).

Home of Dr. Malcolm Nicholson of Gadsden County, one of the first members of Florida’s first territory-wide board of health, the Medical Board (1899).

The Medical Board proved burdensome to many would-be applicants, since by law it was to meet exclusively in Tallahassee. In 1831, legislators rectified the situation by abolishing the board and offering physicians three routes to a medical license. An applicant could either (a) file a diploma from a medical college with the local county clerk, (b) file a certificate of competency signed by two licensed Florida doctors, or (c) file evidence of having completed “one course of lectures” at “some medical college,” accompanied by a certificate of competency from just one licensed Florida doctor. This certainly made getting a medical license easier, although there were still cases where some prospective physicians had trouble meeting the requirements, as we see with the following case involving Dr. John W. Robarts of Tampa. Robarts had no medical degree, yet 166 Hillsborough County residents asked the legislature to grant him a special license in 1854. Why he was unable to obtain a certificate of competency is not known, although there are other cases where a doctor who relied on herbal or other alternative methods found it difficult to get this kind of support from fellow physicians.

Petition signed by 166 citizens of Hillsborough County asking the legislature to issue a special license to Dr. John W. Robarts (Series 2153, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to view a larger version.

Petition signed by 166 citizens of Hillsborough County asking the legislature to issue a special license to Dr. John W. Robarts (Series 2153, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to view the complete document.

This system continued with relatively few changes for more than half a century, but over time concerns about “quack” doctors and harmful patent medicines led the state government to get even more deeply involved. The growth of the state and its far-flung geography played a role as well. In 1881, legislators passed an act creating six boards of medical examiners headquartered in Tallahassee, Jacksonville, Pensacola, Key West, Ocala and Tampa. The boards were to examine any persons not possessing a medical degree who wished to practice medicine, surgery or obstetrics in the state. If the applicant passed the examination, he was to enter a copy of the board’s certificate into the records of his local county clerk.

The 1881 law required the six boards to examine applicants in five key areas: anatomy, operative and minor surgery, obstetrics, diseases of women and children and “the general laws of health.” The State Archives holds copies of minutes from the meetings of the examining board based in Pensacola (Series S1321), which contain some of the questions they asked each applicant in the 1890s. Here are a few examples, some of which really show their age. How many can you answer?

  1. Give the effect of chloroform on the system.
  2. What are the antidotes for strychnine poisoning?
  3. State the object of the circulatory system.
  4. What are the symptoms and treatment of smallpox?
  5. What is formed when you combine in a prescription potassium iodide and bichloral mercury?
  6. How may it be known [in the process of delivering a baby] that labor has begun?

In 1889, legislators revamped the system and began requiring all doctors to have a medical degree and sit for an examination. In 1905, they abolished the six separate examining boards and established a statewide Board of Medical Examiners, which still operates today as the Florida Board of Medicine. The questions have gotten a little more complex, as today’s doctors can attest, but the object is the same–to protect the public and maintain a high standard of quality among Florida’s health care professionals.

Doctor and nurse examining a patient at the FSU infirmary in Tallahassee (1959).

Doctor and nurse examining a patient at the FSU infirmary in Tallahassee (1959).

Is there a doctor somewhere in your family tree? Check out our webinar on researching your ancestor’s occupation to learn how to find out more!

 

 

Early Dentistry in Florida

OUCH!!! Going to the dentist doesn’t generally fall on many people’s list of favorite things to do, but like it or not it’s a crucial part of maintaining oral health. Moreover, dentists in the twenty-first century have technology available that makes oral care much, much more comfortable and safe than it was in earlier days. Today we take a broad sweeping look at the dental profession in Florida from territorial days to the modern era.

Dentist Charles N. Clark with a patient at his office at 93 Market Street in Apalachicola (February 1899).

Dentist Charles N. Clark with a patient at his office at 93 Market Street in Apalachicola (February 1899).

Probably the most profound difference between dentistry today and the profession in the early nineteenth century is that prior to about 1840 dentists were not really considered professionals or doctors. They were tradesmen, much like barbers, midwives, or blacksmiths. Their education came not from a university or dental school, but from apprenticeships with older, experienced dentists.

Perhaps the lack of formal dental school training came from there also being a lack of standardized equipment or technique for the young dentist to learn. Before dentistry became organized as a profession, each dentist made his own drugs, if indeed he used them at all. He made his own equipment, or used whatever was available. Replacement teeth came from animals or from the deceased. Antiseptics or anesthesia? With the slight exception of whiskey, forget about it.

Page from the journal of physician Dr. John M.W. Davidson of Gadsden County, giving a recipe for a treatment for "facial and dental neuralgias," essentially toothaches. Davidson began keeping the journal in 1843. Click on the image for a full transcription.

Page from the journal of physician Dr. John M.W. Davidson of Gadsden County, giving a recipe for a treatment for “facial and dental neuralgias,” essentially toothaches. Davidson began keeping the journal in 1843. Click on the image for a full transcription.

As was the case with many professions during the nineteenth century, dentists began communicating with one another, establishing best practices, and sharing their techniques with one another. The founding of the world’s first dental school in Baltimore, Maryland in 1840 was followed by more openings around the country, and dentists soon were able to distinguish themselves with degrees marking them as formally trained professionals.

Some of the first professional dentists in Florida included Dr. Andrew Brookins of Jacksonville, Dr. Edward Dinus Neve of Tampa, Dr. James Chace of Cedar Key, Dr. William H. Bracey of Gainesville, and Dr. J.M. Baggett of Dunedin.

In 1883, Dr. James Chace of Cedar Key met with other dentists from around the state and laid plans for a professional society of dentistry that would help create and maintain standards for ethical practices. The Florida State Dental Society was founded the next year with twenty-five charter members, and they immediately set to work urging the state government to pass laws regulating the practice of dentistry in Florida.

The Society was successful; in 1887 the state legislature passed an act creating a Board of Dental Examiners and making it illegal to practice dentistry without a certificate of the board’s endorsement. Practicing without a license became a misdemeanor punishable by fine, although curiously the law stipulated that teeth could still be extracted by anyone regardless of whether they had received any sort of dental training.

Dr. E.N. Atkins with a patient - Blountstown (1917).

Dr. E.N. Atkins with a patient – Blountstown (1917).

The application process for a certificate was fairly simple, even into the early twentieth century. Applicants were questioned about their attendance at dental school, whether they had practiced dentistry elsewhere, whether they had been convicted or indicted in any felony cases, whether they were addicted to “the liquor or drug habit,” and whether they had ever been prosecuted for illegally practicing dentistry. If the answers to these questions appeared to be in good order, the Board of Examiners would subject the applicant to an exam, part written and part clinical. If the applicant passed both portions, he would be issued a certificate.

An example of an application for examination by the State Board of dental Examiners. This application was made by William M. McRae of Live Oak in 1910 (Box 4, Series 394, State Archives of Florida).

An example of an application for examination by the State Board of Dental Examiners. This application was made by William M. McRae of Live Oak in 1910 (Box 4, Series 394, State Archives of Florida).

At the turn of the twentieth century, even with improvements in technique, tools, and dental education, practicing dentistry required a bit of innovation and willingness to think outside the box. Many dentists had offices in town, much like we usually see today. Transportation, however, was often problematic and inconvenient for many Florida residents living on farms and settlements far away from the larger towns, and so many dentists often took to the roads in wagons, automobiles, and even boats to reach their patients. In the following quote, Dr. Alton B. Whitman of Orlando describes his method for treating “remote” patients around the turn of the century.

“The patient sat in a high-back rocking chair which was padded with pillows and quilts and propped into position with pieces of stovewood under the rockers. The work was usually done on the porch for good light. Sometimes, for extracting [teeth], two straight chairs were placed back to back. The operator’s left foot was put on the seat of the chair back of the patient, and his knee became the headrest, which afforded very good control.”

Dr. F.H. Houghton of Palm Beach developed his own method for getting to the patients who needed him most. In 1898, when he began his practice, the population of Palm Beach was too small to support Houghton’s business, but the residents along the Halifax, Indian, and Hillsborough rivers still needed plenty of dental work. The good doctor solved the puzzle by building a boat 153 feet long and 20 feet wide, on which he constructed several rooms outfitted with all the necessary equipment for practicing modern dentistry. Houghton aptly named his floating office the “Dentos.”

Dr. Houghton's floating dental office, the

Dr. Houghton’s floating dental office, the “Dentos,” (circa 1910).

Over time, dentistry standards became more intricate and rigorous, and dentists’ offices began looking more like they do today. The early history of Florida dentistry is, however, a reminder of how dedicated  practitioners of the profession were to doing the best they could with what they had.

What was going to the dentist like when you were young? Do you remember dental practices from that time period that are no longer in use? Tell us about it by leaving a comment.