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Monday Nov 24, 2014

The Center for the History of Family Medicine: At First, I Didn't Care Either. But Now I Get It

Probably like many of you, I don't think about history much. Between the responsibilities of my practice, my family and my service to the Academy and its members, I just don't have a lot of time to study the past.

So when I was appointed recently as the Academy's representative to the Board of Curators of the Center for the History of Family Medicine(www.aafpfoundation.org), I did not know what to expect. As the principal resource center for the collection of the specialty's history, the center struck me as a dull abstraction at best and at worst, a waste of time, space and money. With all of the many issues and challenges facing our specialty, it just didn't seem important to me.

Photo courtesy the Center for the History of Family Medicine
Arthur "Lud" Ludwick Jr., M.D., won the Silver Star while serving as a physician on the frontline during World War II. Ludwick is one of the many physicians whose stories are told through the Center for the History of Family Medicine.

But then I came to the center and saw it for myself. And now I get it.

The center is much more than just a place where old papers are stored. It is the collective memory of family medicine. 

Told through its many documents, photographs, videos and artifacts, the story of our specialty is one of hardship, struggle and, ultimately, triumph. It begins in 1947, when a group of general practitioners -- facing the almost certain extinction of general practice -- formed the organization that we know today as the AAFP. It's a story worth remembering as we venture into the future and turn our sights to addressing the challenges and opportunities ahead through the Family Medicine for America's Health(fmahealth.org) project.

But fundamentally, the story of family medicine is a story about people. It's a patchwork of the intensely personal stories of the many GPs and family docs who, throughout the history of our country, have served on the frontline of American medicine, caring for patients in wartime and in peacetime, and from birth to death.

Take for example, the story of  Arthur "Lud" Ludwick Jr., M.D., who won the Silver Star for "gallantry in action" while serving as a GP on the Italian frontline during World War II and then went on to have a long and distinguished career practicing in Wenatchee, Wash.

Or the story of Olin Elliott, M.D., of Des Moines, Iowa. Described by one colleague as "a delightful, well-rounded doctor, loved and respected by patients, colleagues, family and acquaintances alike," Elliott was renowned for his compassion and dedication to his craft. In 1957, when his wife was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, he became her primary caretaker while still continuing his medical practice, providing her with medical treatment until her death. In later years, Elliott volunteered at a clinic for the homeless in Des Moines, and even after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1981, he continued to care for his patients up until the day of his death the following year. 

Or, more recently, the story of Regina Benjamin, M.D., M.B.A., a family physician from the small fishing village of Bayou La Batre, Ala., who went on to become the 18th surgeon general of the United States.    

All of their stories -- and the stories of many others -- are told through the center's collections.

And there are practical applications for the center's holdings, too. An important educational resource for the specialty, each year, the center sponsors both a research fellowship and an internship program. The information contained in the center's collections helps us understand -- and hopefully avoid -- the mistakes of the past, thus saving us time and money that might otherwise have been spent trying to reinvent the wheel. It also plays an important role in advancing our specialty by supporting and enhancing public relations and marketing efforts through interesting and informative exhibits.

In short, the center allows us to make a direct and vital connection between family medicine's distinguished past and its exciting future.

So now I get it. And I hope that you will have the opportunity one day to visit the center  -- either in person at the Academy's Leawood, Kan., headquarters or through its website(www.aafpfoundation.org) -- and discover this for yourself.

After all, in the words of author and historian Theodore Draper, "If history can teach us nothing, we have nothing that can teach us."

Robert Lee, M.D., is a member of the AAFP Board of Directors.

Posted at 03:37PM Nov 24, 2014 by Robert Lee, M.D.

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