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Country doctors once did it all: pulling teeth, delivering babies

An ear horn from 1915 is among more than 5,000 artifacts in the museum’s collection. (Country Doctor Museum)

The term “country doctor” may call a horse and buggy to mind. But handling a horse used to be just one of a rural doctor’s many skills. A country doctor might be called on to practice dentistry, dispense prescriptions and deliver babies over a wide swath of territory.

The Country Doctor Museum brings that history to life. The Bailey, N.C., museum is dedicated to interpreting the history of medicine in rural America — a history that spans 200 years.

With the help of docents, visitors tour three buildings and a medicinal herb garden, learning the stories of physicians and nurses and how they cared for their patients. There’s an authentic 19th-century apothecary, a collection of exam tables and bloodletting devices, and a carriage house filled with a buggy, a surrey, and a Model T. The exhibitions cover such things as patent medicine and the ways in which rural doctors were paid — often by barter, not in cash.

The museum, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, was founded by Josephine E. Newell, a physician who was seventh in a line of country doctors. Today, it’s administered by East Carolina University, which has a health sciences focus.

The university connection makes the museum more than a roadside attraction; the museum offers outreach to school groups, has its own oral history program, and trains medical students in public-health history.

Some of the museum’s more than 5,000 artifacts — including an ear horn from about a century ago and a saddle bag used to carry medications — can be seen via an online database.

Today’s rural health practitioners face some of the same challenges their predecessors did. There are far fewer physicians available to people living in rural areas than in cities, and those who do practice medicine there face geographic barriers, limited funding and patients with shorter life expectancies.

The Country Doctor Museum puts those challenges into context. It’s a reminder that resilient practitioners have always found a way to care for their patients — even if long miles in a buggy were part of the job.

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