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As cars became more widespread during the early 20th century, mechanized vehicles began to replace horses and wagons in wartime. While tanks were tested on the battlefield during World War I, there was also a need to remove wounded soldiers from the front quickly, safely, and efficiently. Ford Motor Company’s Model Ts were light, economical, and easy to operate, which made them perfect for this need.

We’ve just digitized dozens of photographs and drawings showing these innovative World War I–era Ford Model T ambulances, including this October 1918 demo picture, with the wartime message “On to Berlin” visible on the shoe soles of the “patient.”

Visit our Digital Collections to browse more photographs and technical drawings of Model T ambulances.

Ellice Engdahl is Digital Strategy Manager, Collections & Content at The Henry Ford.

cars, World War I, Model Ts, healthcare, Ford Motor Company, digital collections, by Ellice Engdahl

Although medical history is not currently a focus of The Henry Ford’s collections, we do have numerous medical artifacts because they relate in some way to a different area of our collections, such as public life, transportation, buildings and architecture, or design. New Associate Curators of Digital Content, Katherine White and Ryan Jelso, combed through The Henry Ford’s collection looking for artifacts that were medically innovative, either as physical innovations or as representations of innovations in the medical profession. The objects they found were initially acquired for their relation to a different collections area, but they tie closely to the development of today's medical technologies and practices.

THF165298
A Civil War surgeon used this government-issued Field Operating Kit, initially acquired by The Henry Ford as a public history artifact, at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May of 1863. It contains all the tools needed to perform the most common Civil War medical procedure – amputation.

New Weapons Technology Leads to New Surgical Techniques
In 1849, French military officer Claude-Etienne Minié invented a hollow-based cylindrical bullet, which was more accurate over long distances than its predecessors and more quickly loaded into a rifle barrel due to its slightly smaller size. The minié bullet provided a significant advantage to those on the offensive; however, the bullet was immensely destructive to those on the defensive. Due to its hollow nature, the projectile became misshapen upon impact and its ragged edges caused significantly more internal damage than the solid bullets used previously.

Both the Union and Confederate Armies utilized the minié bullet extensively during the American Civil War. The damages wrought by this particular bullet surely contributed to the war’s astronomical death count, but also contributed to the advancement of amputation surgery. While amputation had been used throughout the ages, Civil War surgeons innovated numerous surgical advancements. Immediate amputation of an injured limb before infection spread to healthy tissue became standard and drastically decreased battlefield mortality rates.

THF129988
The Henry Ford's broad transportation collection covers the motorization of ambulances during World War I. Take a look at a few archival photographs that document the Model T's role in this important part of ambulance history, here.

The Motorization of Medical Care
The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries spurred technological innovations that would change how wars were conducted in the decades to come. By the beginning of World War I in the early 20th century, military units had become increasingly motorized, replacing the horses and wagons of past wars. Armies employed mechanized military vehicles like tanks, airplanes and submarines along with new forms of chemical warfare to inflict mass casualties during what became known as "The Great War." With a surge in casualties, quick transportation of the wounded away from the battlefronts to safer hospitals became a life-saving priority. To meet this need, volunteer services and individual armies experimented with and developed motor ambulance corps, eventually making them commonplace.

The torn up roads, heavily shelled areas, and muddy terrain of the war-torn European continent made lighter vehicles preferable. While other makes and models were present, lightweight Ford Model Ts made up a large percentage of the ambulances in service during World War I. The vehicles’ ability to traverse the war environment along with their easy maneuverability made them popular among ambulance drivers. Other advantages of Model T ambulances included their low cost, economical fuel usage, and ease of operation for the average solider or volunteer. The standardization of Model T parts also meant that maintenance for these ambulances could be performed readily, extending each vehicle's service life and allowing medical professionals to tend to the wounded quicker than ever before.

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As a part of the historic building collection in Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford, Doc Howard's office serves as an example of the 19th century origins from which modern American medicine would evolve.

A Snapshot of Mid-19th Century Medicine
Representative of a typical early rural doctor's office, this mid-19th century building is where Dr. Alonson Bingley Howard (1823-1883) practiced an eclectic combination of conventional, botanical, and homeopathic medicine. Born in New York, Howard moved to Tekonsha, Michigan, and began his career as a farmer, eventually deciding that he wanted to become a physician. He first attended Cleveland Medical College from 1850-1851, later entering the University of Michigan's School of Medicine, where he took classes from 1851-1852. Although medical school records list him as a non-graduate, Howard moved back to Tekonsha and went on to practice medicine until his death in 1883.

In the 19th century, medical professionals had a limited understanding of illnesses and often relied on bloodletting or other purging methods to "balance" the body and keep diseases at bay. Along with minor surgery, these common practices were available to Dr. Howard as he traveled across his community attending to pregnancies, chronic diseases, tuberculosis, dental problems, and various wounds. To aid him in treating his patients, he relied on the early pharmaceutical medicines that could be found on the market during this period. However, he also kept a laboratory in his office where he could experiment with developing his own medicines through a wide personal stock of plants and minerals.

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The Henry Ford obtained this Eames Molded Plywood Leg Splint as a design history artifact. It can be found in design museums throughout the world and is included in The Henry Ford Museum’s “Fully Furnished” exhibit.

Experimentation with Plywood Provides Medical Solution
The Museum of Modern Art held a design competition in 1940 entitled Organic Design in Home Furnishings, which aimed to spur development of modern furniture that adequately addressed the era’s changing way of life. Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen, friends and peers at Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art, entered multiple molded plywood chair designs into the competition and won two of the six categories. At the time, molding or bending plywood was still a quite progressive process and molded plywood was not yet commonly used in mass-produced goods for the public. Along with his wife, Ray, Charles Eames continued experimentation with molded plywood after the competition.

America’s entry into World War II brought shortages of many materials, including metal. Splints for broken limbs had historically been produced of metal, although metal splints were not ideal for military use due to their weight and inflexibility. Charles and Ray Eames, perpetual problem-solvers, designed a lightweight, strong, and flexible leg splint produced through their innovative method of molding plywood. The Eames molded leg splint became a highly effective solution for the military as well as a highly sculptural design object.

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Represented in The Henry Ford's large American public life collection is the late 19th- and early 20th-century phenomenon of patent medicines, over-the-counter drugs that consumers used to self-medicate.

Consumerism Helps Standardize Early Medicines
In the late 19th century, an increasing body of medical knowledge had begun to revolutionize the practice of medicine. However, a lack of scientific understanding of early medical drugs meant that drugs used in treatment were often inadequate and could even exacerbate illnesses. At a time when disease was still widespread, Americans sought cures for any number of maladies and tried nearly anything to get relief. Entrepreneurs took advantage, using advertising to make claims and promise cures with manufactured patent medicines. Such patent medicines rose to popularity in the last quarter of the 19th century, but the industry was unregulated and manufacturers were secretive about their recipes.

Some of these concoctions contained harmful ingredients or ingredients used in unsafe quantities. Cocaine, alcohol, opium, and heroin were some of the common ingredients that could be found in early patent medicines. These examples, as well as other additives, could result in addiction or even death, prompting national legislation that prohibited misleading health claims and required manufacturers to list their product's contents. In the United States, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 helped stop the manufacture of drugs and products considered poisonous, adulterated or mislabeled.

Some of the patent medicines in our collection were analyzed in 2013 through a partnership between The Henry Ford's conservation staff and the Chemistry & Biochemistry Department at University of Detroit Mercy. Their findings, as well as more information on patent medicines can be found here in our Digital Collections.

An artifact, especially an innovative artifact, often has multidisciplinary significance. An object that is distinctly medical in nature may be equally as significant, or even more significant, as a public history or design history artifact. The Henry Ford’s collections boast countless significant artifacts with histories that reach across subject matter boundaries, such as this grouping of medically innovative artifacts. 

By Katherine White and Ryan Jelso, Associate Curators, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. This post was made possible in part by our partners at Beaumont. Beaumont is a leading high-value health care network focused on extraordinary outcomes through education, innovation and compassion. For the latest health and wellness news, visit beaumont.org/health-wellness

Eames, patent medicines, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, Dr. Howard's Office, design, by Ryan Jelso, by Katherine White, healthcare

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 employee, 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.

    Ford workers, healthcare, Ford Motor Company, by Kathy Makas

    Dr_Howards_Office_EI.1929.687

    We’re continuing with the project we started this summer, digitizing materials related to our historic buildings in Greenfield Village. We’ve recently added photographs for a number of these buildings, including Dr. Howard’s Office.  As Curator of Public Life Donna Braden notes in a 2013 blog post, Dr. Howard’s Office depicts a 19th century country doctor’s office, presented in large part through original artifacts from Alonson Howard’s practice in Tekonsha, Mich. This 1956 photograph shows an interior shot of the building on its original site, about five years before it was moved to Greenfield Village. Visit our collections website to view all the recently added material related to Dr. Howard’s Office.

    Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.

    Michigan, by Ellice Engdahl, Dr. Howard's Office, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, healthcare, digital collections

    In 1906, the U.S. Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, opening a path to government regulation of unsafe ingredients in ingestible consumer products. Before this, though, manufacturers did a booming business in “patent medicines,” concoctions that purported to cure a variety of ills, from colic to indigestion to sexually transmitted diseases to “female complaints.” They were frequently alcohol-based and contained any number of ingredients (most unadvertised), ranging from the harmless to the toxic. The Henry Ford has a collection of patent medicines from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and we’ve just added a number of these to our online collections, including Dr. Page's Rail Road Pills. Over the upcoming weeks, we’ll also be adding results of chemical analysis of these medicines done in conjunction with the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Detroit, Mercy, in 2009. To get a sneak peek at the results for one of the medicines, check out “Dr. Tutt’s Liver Pills,” and click the “Specifications” tab to find out the contents. Or, see all our digitized patent medicines, along with related advertising and packaging.

    healthcare, patent medicines, by Ellice Engdahl, digital collections

    You might have seen a news story making the rounds earlier this year involving analysis of some of the patent medicines in The Henry Ford’s collections by the Chemistry & Biochemistry Department at University of Detroit Mercy in conjunction with conservation staff from The Henry Ford. We’ve just digitized a sampling of the medicines that were analyzed, including “Dr. Sawens Magic Nervine Pills,” with a few more coming soon. See a variety of the medicines and related trade cards on our collections site. Be sure to click the second tab on the medicines’ records to see the analysis that was done!

    digital collections, by Ellice Engdahl, healthcare, patent medicines

    It’s always a thrill when we get to meet descendants of people connected with our Greenfield Village buildings. A few weeks ago, we hosted five descendants of Dr. Howard, whose Tekonsha, Mich., office is located out in the Village next to the Logan County Court House.

    Numerous Dr. Howard descendants attended the formal dedication of this building in Greenfield Village back on Oct.15, 1963. (1963 – P.B.34298 – THF109613)

    These five knowledgeable and enthusiastic members of the family came from North Dakota, California, and as far away as Australia! The group drove here together from North Dakota, visiting other family sites along the way—including, of course, the original site of Dr. Howard’s office in Tekonsha (near Marshall).

    From left to right: Corey Washburn (North Dakota); Susan Gillies (Australia); Dawn Gunther (California); Fiona Lynton (Australia); and Angela Karaca (Australia). Corey and Dawn are great great great grandchildren of Dr. Howard; Sue, Fiona, and Angela are great great grandchildren. (Photo by Donna Braden)

    All five descendants who came to visit trace their lineage back to Dr. Howard’s second of four children from his second marriage, Letitia Elizabeth (right, born 1864). In 1884, Letitia married Edwin DeMott Washburn and the couple headed out west to North Dakota. Many Washburn descendants still reside there. Letitia and Edwin’s grandson, Howard DeMott Washburn, donated the doctor’s office to Greenfield Village. (86.18.337.1 – THF109605)

    Dr. Howard’s office was brought to Greenfield Village to represent the office of a country doctor. It is particularly unique because virtually everything in the building is original and dates to the time of his practice.

    Dr. Howard's Office

    Dr. Howard Office in Greenfield Village

    Interior shots of Dr. Howard’s office in 1956, just before the building was moved to Greenfield Village.

    Dr. Alonson Bingley Howard (1823-1883) was known to have a keen mind, an earthy sense of humor, and a colorful personality.

    Dr. Alonson B. Howard, about 1858 (P.B.34260 – THF109611)

    From the time he started his practice in the early 1850s until his death in 1883, Dr. Howard used a combination of methods to cure sick patients. These included herbal remedies that he concocted himself and more conventional medicines he had learned about while attending Cleveland Medical College and the University of Michigan for a few years. When he wasn’t in his office in Tekonsha, he was “out tending to patients” in the local area.

    Inside the office today. The rows of medicine bottles and the wooden kegs that had once been filled with botanical extracts reflect the combination of herbal and conventional methods that Dr. Howard practiced. (THF11271; THF 11280)

    When Dr. Howard’s descendants came here a few weeks ago, they were hoping to unearth clues to this long-ago history that would build upon their previous research into family stories and genealogy. They spent a lot of time out in the building, talking to staff and visitors and taking loads of pictures. Then they combed through our archival collections that contained materials about their family and about the office.

    In the Benson Ford Research Center. Foreground, left to right: Fiona, Sue, Corey and Dawn. Angela is at the table in the back. (Photo by Donna Braden)

    We were delighted that they were also willing to let us interview them so they could tell us more about their family history—filling in gaps in our own knowledge, revealing new insights, and truly putting new life back into the Dr. Howard story.

    Thanks, Corey, Dawn, Sue, Angela, and Fiona, for reminding us that people all over the world continue to have deep personal connections to our buildings in Greenfield Village. It was a pleasure meeting you and we hope you come back to visit again soon.

    Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

    research, Michigan, healthcare, by Donna R. Braden, Dr. Howard's Office, Greenfield Village, Greenfield Village buildings

    Ever heard of Alonson Bingley Howard Jr.? Well he’s actually someone we know quite well here at The Henry Ford. We call him Doc Howard and his office and garden are located in Greenfield Village.

    Doc Howard practiced in Michigan around the time of the Civil War. He was, as we say now, a homeopathic doctor – creating his own concoctions and medicines from natural sources such as herbs, spices, elixirs, poultices, pills, waters, chemicals and minerals.

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    Michigan, healthcare, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, Dr. Howard's Office