Crozet Annals of Medicine: The Life of a Doctor’s Wife, Then and Now

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By Guest Columnist Dr. Amita Sudhir

As we roll into the first weeks of summer (and Dr. Reiser, as usual, is basking on a Caribbean isle somewhere, leaving me to write his column and teach his residents), my daughter has on her reading list a book that my mother and I both enjoyed as little girls, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Rebecca is a feisty young thing being raised by her spinster aunts, who tries hard to be good but sometimes falls short of the mark. Her inspirations for her behavior come from the many books that she reads, one of which she references often. This book, which also actually exists, is a fictional account of the life of a small-town doctor’s wife. Cora and the Doctor; or, Revelations of a Physician’s wife, held a prominent place in my imagination growing up even though I had never read it. The book, written in 1855, and once apparently a classic, has been out of print for many years, but thanks to the magic of the internet I was able to begin reading an online version last night. The book is set up as Cora’s journal and letters, which she addresses to her mother. Part anthropological narrative, part personal history, and part treatise on social reform, it makes apparent how much being a doctor’s wife in 1855 was a job and identity just as being a doctor was.

My husband asked me how it compared to being a doctor’s wife today. I am in the perfect position to reflect on this, being not just a physician myself but married to one (a surgeon). I thought about how Cora’s life compared to my own. Setting aside the fact that we are over a hundred and fifty years apart and that medicine and marriage have both changed greatly in that time, here is my summary of Cora’s life as a doctor’s wife versus mine:

Cora rides around town with her husband every day and goes to visit patients with him.

Today, taking your wife to see patients would be considered very odd and an invasion of privacy, but back then, it was expected of a doctor’s wife. Not only do I not do this, but I seldom even get to ride in the same car with my husband. In fact, one characteristic of a physician’s family is that it is often necessary to take two cars to events so that when he is called in to the hospital the rest of us can remain at the pool, barbecue or whatever it was that we were trying to do as a family. It’s helpful if you don’t leave the extra car seat in the car your husband drives away with when you are trying to return home with your children. Cora presumably did not need to contend with this as they rode in their carriage.

Cora is intimately involved and knowledgeable about the medical problems of an entire town.

Like Cora, we live in a small town, and not a single party or PTO event has gone by without someone coming up to us to either thank my husband for fixing them or to ask him for some medical advice. (No one asks me for medical advice unless they are having an emergency, which generally does not happen at the elementary school spring fling, and thank goodness for that!). I won’t go into too much detail about hearing about people’s medical problems in public, but suffice it to say that I am quite glad that the body part my husband’s  practice focuses on is the hand.

Cora sometimes doesn’t know what is expected of her, and is at a loss to find things to do.

Luckily, I do not share Cora’s burden of numerous servants to do my bidding so this is not a problem I have to deal with.

Cora’s husband is absent from the home for long periods, and sometimes sends a message about when he will return, but sometimes doesn’t.

Most doctors’ wives can identify with this one. Poor Cora did not have the benefit of electronic paging. Even the telegraph was not functional yet. Her husband dispatched handwritten notes to her advising her of the approximate time of his return. Presumably those notes were carried by a messenger on horseback. I, on the other hand, have tortured many OR nurses by paging my husband and asking how many hours were left in his case. While 21st century doctors’ wives may not have the forbearance of our predecessors, we have learned to accept that “almost done” can mean anywhere from one to twelve hours.

Cora doesn’t have other doctors’ wives to commiserate with.

Cora’s husband, Frank, is the only game in town. Therefore, she is the only doctor’s wife. When my husband has to cancel pre-existing plans because of an unforeseen complication, I have a whole community of people who completely understand that, when I say I am mad, I’m not mad at him (see # 6).

Cora and her husband are very forgiving of each other.

I get this one—an essential characteristic of a doctor’s wife. When you are not sure when you’ll next see your husband, fighting is such a waste of time.

Cora seems to be of rather fragile disposition, and requires her husband’s medical ministrations at times.

Cora’s Frank is the only doc in town so who else would do this? The modern-day doctor’s wife has to be rather more resilient. If I complain about a hand problem to my husband, he is likely to say I am just fine. Who can blame him when only hours before he was reattaching a finger blown off by an errant firework? I can’t expect him to put me to bed and administer cooling draughts. Most likely those concoctions Cora was drinking contained opium, and then the DEA would be after my husband for prescribing narcotics for a family member.

Cora arises in the morning after her husband has left for work.

Even though I essentially awake with the chickens (my neighbor has some, so I know this is literally true), my husband is long gone when I wake up. Early in our marriage, he used to wake me up while dressing to ask if his tie matched his shirt. He has either become more compassionate about my need for sleep or his sartorial skills have improved because he no longer does this. Consequently, I spend most mornings alone with our children. Like Cora and Frank, we do usually have dinner together, but unlike them, without being waited upon by our numerous servants. I grew up with my parents reading the newspaper at the breakfast table every morning. Not only do we not eat breakfast as a family now, but we don’t get the newspaper. It would be delivered long after my husband left the house and I wouldn’t have time to read it before I get the kids ready for school and leave for work. And who wants stale news in the evening?

Cora’s husband, Frank the Doctor, never puts his children to bed.

Cora herself never does either. This job is left to the chambermaid. Lacking a chambermaid in our family, both parents are on bedtime duty. Poor Frank, unlike my fortunate husband, was deprived of the singular pleasures of diaper-changing and getting just one more glass of water at bedtime.

Cora and her husband are considerate of and grateful for each other, and appear to each set very high standards for their own behavior.

Cora and Frank are fictional, idealized creatures who, while flawed, are aware of their flaws and work very hard to redeem them. I am sure my husband and I have many flaws of which we are not aware, and we could never be as kind, generous, loving and penitent as Cora and Frank.  However, being married to someone who holds themselves to a high standard, which doctors should, makes one, as a doctor’s wife, try harder to hold oneself to a high standard, too. While I complain much more than Cora would think proper about all the things in life I’ve had to do alone, sharing a doctor’s life is about more than that. Cora blushes every time someone tells her how great her husband is. I’m never really sure how to react either, but it’s a nice thing to hear.

So we see that some things have changed since the 50s, the 1850s that is, but some things are still the same. The next time you have a medical appointment, remember that behind physicians, men or women, there’s someone that helped them match their clothes in the morning and then maybe ate breakfast alone, complained to other doctors’ spouses about having to do that, but didn’t really mind that much, and is secretly quite proud of their spouse and what they do.

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