The Changing Humors of Portsmouth The Medical Biography of an American Town, 1623-1983

The Changing Humors of Portsmouth The Medical Biography of an American Town, 1623-1983

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The story of medicine in Portsmouth, N.H., since its days as a British colonial village, mirrors the tale played out in many other American communities. It has been influenced not only by continually evolving changes in medical practices and techniques, but even more by the same social and economic forces that have shaped contemporary thinking about all aspects of health care in this country-especially how to pay for it.

Portsmouth's physicians achieved an enviable collective reputation in the years following the revolution—only to lose it when the state's major medical institutions moved inland. The pivotal period for the town's medical development was the nineteenth century, as both imported and home-grown American healing systems began to compete successfully with traditional practices, as the town fathers became better able to ward off epidemics, and as scientific discoveries began to improve the chances that the average patient might actually benefit from professional treatment, especially from surgery.

The local medical society was founded in an attempt to control the forces of competition as well as to control the forces of competition as well as to provide a forum for sharing new knowledge. By the turn of the century, the Portsmouth hospital had become the major arena for demonstrating the benefits of modern medicine. Then, once the hospital dominated local professional affairs, the balance of medical power shifted out of the office practices of the society's members and into the meeting rooms of the hospital, sometimes to the accompaniment of sarcastic comments by newspaper editors. Confrontations have often enlivened the medical scene in Portsmouth. Today some of them can be seen as humorous political squabbles, but some were intensely dramatic, as when the charitable women who started the hospital were squeezed out of its decision-making processes by forces they did not understand, or when a majority of the hospital's nurses found themselves-however unwillingly but certainly successful- on the picket lines. The actors in this story may have been unique in Portsmouth, but their tale was familiar throughout America.


“A valuable compendium of interesting information and thoughtful commentary on “average American medicine,” particularly in the nineteenth century, which will appeal to specialist and non-specialist alike.” —AHR

“Richly detailed and scrupulously documented, the authors provide a fascinating account of all the aspects of medicine in an ordinary American town from its beginnings until this decade. I think that if I were asked to recommend one book that would give the flavor of the development of American medicine outside medical schools and research teaching hospitals, this would be it. Warmly recommended.” —Bull. N.Y. Acad. Med.