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The Ford Motor Company Medical Department

June 25, 2015

First-Aid Hospital at Ford Motor Company Highland Park Plant, 1913. THF97148

From “a bottle of liquid soap, a few bandages, and a pair of scissors” in a small wooden box by the timecards, the Ford Motor Company Medical Department grew to include over 100 physicians, assistants, and other employees. In 1914, Ford Motor Company instituted the five dollar day and with it a number of improvements to their programs for workers. One such program, was to expand and build up the Medical Department, first at Highland Park, where a 23-room state-of-the-art medical facility was built, and then expanding to the Rouge and other factories across the Ford empire. Let’s take a look at what the Medical Department looked like around 1916.

By 1916, the Medical Department included six divisions: Tuberculosis, Roentgenology, Dermatology, Dentistry, Corps. of the First Aid, and Ophthalmology, as well as various surgeons and support staff, counting over 100 people in all. It was headed up by Dr. J.E. Mead, who was assisted by Dr. N.L. Woodry, and Dr. W.R. McClure, and included ten other physicians, mainly from Detroit College of Medicine. In the twelve months before July 1917, these doctors were kept busy handling 558,869 cases including: 278,692 surgical cases, 120,309 medical cases, 5,044 minor operations, 2,473 x-rays, and 1,111 dental exams.

The Emergency Medical Hospital, situated between the Paymaster’s Office and Employment Office at Highland Park, was prepared for all manner of medical needs with x-ray machines, dressing tables and chairs for injuries to the head and “uppers;” and benches, foot rests, and tubs for “foot cases;” a well-supplied stock of pharmaceuticals; and a full operating room (as well as an additional operating room in the Blast Furnace area). There were also six first aid stations around the factory that functioned 24 hours a day manned by assistants who provided basic first aid and referred any cases such as infections, foreign bodies in the eye, or those requiring minor surgery, to the main hospital.

Any injury, no matter if it was just a scratch, was expected to be reported and had to be attended to at a first aid station, and if it warranted further attention, at the Emergency Hospital. Bulletins, posters, articles in the factory papers and Ford Times, as well as lectures, and on the job coaching alerted men to the danger of leaving an injury untreated. Images portraying infected eyes and hands alerted employees to the importance of proper medical attention. A booklet of “Helpful hints” issued to employees included medical tips such as: “All foreign bodies lodged in the eye should be removed by the doctor or first-aid man, and not by a fellow employe, because serious complications may result and probably cause blindness,” and “Do not try to lift anything beyond your strength, as you are liable to rupture yourself,” as well as “Do not wear loose-fitting or ragged clothing, as you are liable to be caught and pulled into a machine and seriously injured” (to say the least).

The Medical Department also played a large role in the hiring process and job placement of employees. Each new hire at Ford had to undergo a medical examination, and doctors determined what jobs they were physically and mentally best suited for, in 1916-17 they examined 13,055 applicants. The doctors would then turn their reports over to the employment office to process. The employment office kept detailed records of the exact physical requirements needed for jobs in the factory, and matched a new hire to a suitable job. Ford boasted that this method allowed them to hire many workers with disabilities in their factories, “there are probably 5,000 jobs at the Ford factories that do not require full physical capacity, and a surprisingly large number of these may be performed by men for whom steady work was at one time considered physically impossible.” Even workers with tuberculosis were hired and put to work, active cases in a separate “Lungers camp” on Oakland Avenue where they sorted and reclaimed scrap outside in fresh air (in line with the prevailing treatment method of the time). In fact, even when workers were convalescing in hospital they were given whatever light work was possible in the form of occupational therapy. There was also a Medical Transfer Division within the department that examined men and recommended transfers or certain adaptions to their workflow after an injury or illness.

Hangar Hospital, Willow Run Bomber Plant, 1942. THF93728

As you can see from the above photo from Willow Run in 1942, the Medical Department continued to expand to include hospitals at the Rouge, Northern Michigan operations, and beyond. The department worked, in its own words, “solely for the aid and benefit of the employees; to see that they are in proper physical condition for their work and, if not, to do all that can be done in order that they may be in the best condition possible for the fulfillment of their duties.”

More resources on the Medical Department:

  • Accession 611. Norman L. Woodry Papers, 1916-1919
  • Accession 1660. Photographic Vertical File series, 1860-1980
  • Factory facts from Ford Full content in Accession 951. Ford Motor Company Non-Serial Publications Collection
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    To learn even more about the Ford Medical Department, visit our Benson Ford Research Center. Its open Monday-Friday 9:30 am to 5:00 pm. You can set up an appointment in our reading room or ask us a question here.

    Kathy Makas is Reference Archivist at The Henry Ford.

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