Past pandemics, roots of modern medicine focus of historical novel by Jacobs School professor emeritus – UB Now: News and views for UB faculty and staff
Hard as it may be to believe, there was a time in the not-so-distant past when the idea of living through a global pandemic was inconceivable to most of us.
The COVID-19 crisis changed all that. As medical experts and scientists scramble to find treatments and develop a vaccine, it leads us to wonder: How did doctors deal with a community health crisis in earlier times, without the medical advancements and technologies available to researchers in the 21st century?
A retired professor from the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB has written a book that addresses many of those questions.
In his history-based novel, “Bloodletting and Germs: A Doctor in Nineteenth Century Rural New York” (BookBaby), Thomas C. Rosenthal tells the story of Jabez Allen, a country doctor who worked in East Aurora during the 1800s.
The book describes the evolution of medical practices in the 19th century through the eyes of Allen, whose life and experiences Rosenthal painstakingly researched and recreated. It explains how Allen’s medical practice developed during a period of enormous social and scientific change that included the Civil War and the cholera epidemic of the mid-1800s.
Rosenthal knows something about the practice of rural medicine. A 1975 graduate of the Jacobs School, he chaired the Department of Family Medicine from 1994 until his retirement in 2013. During his tenure, Rosenthal was instrumental in establishing the Division of Rural Health, the medical school’s rural health campus in Cuba, N.Y., and its groundbreaking residency program in rural health.
Due to his efforts, UB was named a New York Rural Health Research Center in 1992, and in 1993 became one of only five universities in the country designated as a national rural health research center.
Rosenthal’s interest in rural health came from the eight years he worked as a family doctor in the small, Western New York farming community of Perry. He established the practice in 1978 after completing a family medicine residency at the former Deaconess Hospital in Buffalo. In 1986, he became medical director of Buffalo General Medical Center’s Department of Family Medicine. Rosenthal was named director of UB’s family medicine residency in 1987, and executive director of UB’s rural health programs in 1988.
Rosenthal first came across the story of Jabez Allen on a visit to the East Aurora Historical Society, where he discovered an intriguing artifact: a handwritten copy of a medical school diploma belonging to Allen, alongside the official document.
‘Why would a doctor need to make a copy of his diploma?’ he wondered. As it turns out, Allen was reluctant to send out his diploma to the Erie County Medical Board for fear of losing it. Instead, he sent them his copy.
“Allen practiced in East Aurora from 1834 to 1884, making him the perfect protagonist for a book on 19th-century family medicine,” Rosenthal says.
“The century is often referred to as a period of medical enlightenment,” he explains. “In retirement, I indulged myself in the question, ‘Why did it