In 1848, LIFE Magazine published a photo essay submitted by a photographer by the name of W. Eugene Smith. He had spent 23 days in Kremmling, Colorado shadowing and documenting the day-to-day life of a physician in the area. Smith’s essay was called “Country Doctor” and showed the readers of LIFE Magazine the every day goings on of a rural physician in the west. Dr. Ernest Ceriani was the local physician that Smith shadowed. He was the only doctor within 400 square miles and was on call for 2,000 residents in the area for all of their medical needs from illness to injury, and from childbirth to pediatric care. Because he was at first self-conscious about having a photographer document everything he did, Smith shot the doctor without film for a little while so that Dr. Ceriani could get accustomed to his presence without wasting any film.
Dr. Ernest Ciriani was born in Wyoming on a sheep ranch in 1916. He went to med school in Chicago at the Loyola School of Medicine. In 1948, after serving in the Navy, he was offered a job in Kremmling, CO and moved there with his wife who was a Colorado native. It has been almost 7 decades since Smith captured the work of the intrepid Dr. Ciriani, and yet you can still feel the caring this physician has for his patients as he treats them in these photographs. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be the only one available taking responsibility for the health and happiness of the local citizens.
Dr. Earnest Ceriani making a house call on foot near Kremmling, CO.
Dr. Ceriani had very little experience treating children before moving to Colorado, however he had to study up on pediatrics whenever he could because most of his patients were kids. Here he is examining a feverish 4-year-old girl who was suffering from tonsillitis.
Here Smith captures Dr. Ceriani on a house call while he sits at his patient’s bedside to assess his flu symptoms.
Here Dr. Ceriani was photographed binding a man’s broken ribs after a horse rolled over him.
Dr. Ceriani irrigates a man’s ear with a syringe to flush out wax in order to improve hearing.
Although he was in a rural area, Dr. Ceriani did have access to a small hospital complete with an autoclave for sterilizing instruments, an oxygen tent, x-ray machine, and other medical necessities. Here he goes over a radiograph with one of his patients from a nearby ranch.
Most of his calls were house or ranch calls, for which Dr. Ceriani would bring his medical bag along to supply everything he may need. Here is a picture of what could be found in his bag at any given time.
As the only physician within 400 square miles, it is rare that Dr. Ceriani had any time off, but some friends treated him to a ride up to Gore Canyon for some fishing.
Unfortunately, his fishing trip was cut short when he was called to an emergency. A young girl was kicked in the head by a horse which required his immediate attention.
The poor child that was kicked in the head by a horse was only 2 years old. Her distraught parents watch as Dr. Ceriani and two nurses work on her.
One of the hardest parts of Dr. Ceriani’s job was to be the bearer of bad news. He was able to suture the wound closed which would help minimize scaring but he wasn’t able to save the eye. Smith captures the poignant look on Dr. Ceriani’s face as he breaks the news to her parents that they will need to take her to Denver to have her eye enucleated.
In this photo, Dr. Ceriani assists a rancher by carrying his son on a stretcher. The boy dislocated his elbow when he was thrown from a bronco at the rodeo.
Here Dr. Ceriani wraps the boy’s arm after he reset it. Still under the effects of ether, the boy asked that they not tell his mom what happened, without realizing she was in the room the whole time and held his hand during the painful procedure.
Not only was Dr. Ceriani responsible for all the residents but he also took care of tourists that visited the area. In this photo the doctor is in the back seat of a car giving a morphine injection to a 60-year-old visitor from Chicago who had a mild heart disturbance.
Smith captures the seriousness of the situation as Dr. Ceriani checks the blood pressure of an 85-year old man with a gangrenous leg that needed to be amputated. However, the doctor didn’t believe his patient was strong enough to endure surgery so he had been trying to postpone the amputation.
When he could no longer postpone surgery, Dr. Ceriani carried his patient from the basement to the upper floor where the surgery was to be performed as the hospital had no elevator.
Dr Ceriani is giving his patient with the gangrenous leg a spinal block before performing the amputation. The look on his face as he is getting the block, knowing his leg was going to be removed is heartbreaking.
Here Dr. Ceriani checks a young boy’s foot after it was cut on a piece of glass.
This is a picture of the treeless streets of Kremmling, CO with the Rocky Mountains in the background.
Smith captured a shot of Dr. Ceriani’s operating room as a patient is being anesthetized with ether.
If you’re wondering how the 85-year-old man did during the surgery when his gangrenous foot was amputated, he made it through! Here Dr. Ceriani does a post op checkup after the successful amputation.
Here Dr. Ceriani delivers a newly born baby. Being an obstetrician is just one of his many titles being the only doctor in this rural Colorado town.
Here Smith captured the busy maternity ward at the Kremmling, CO hospital.
According to LIFE Magazine, “The nurses constantly [admonished] him to relax and rest, but because they [were] well aware that he [could not], they [kept] a potful of fresh coffee simmering for him at all hours.” Here he was having some of that coffee and a cigarette in the small hospital kitchen at 2am after finishing a surgery that went well into the night.
Smith did an amazing job capturing all the facets of the life of a country doctor in 1948. Both Smith and Dr. Ceriani were amazing at what they did. I am so impressed by the love and dedication Dr. Ceriani had for his patients and his willingness to sacrifice his own time taking care of everyone who depended on him until he died in 1988. “His income for covering a dozen fields is less than a city doctor makes by specializing in just one, but Ceriani is compensated by the affection of his patients and neighbors, by the high place he has earned in his community and by the fact that he is his own boss. For him, this is enough.” ~ LIFE Magazine.