Thursday, December 11, 2008

Race and medicine in Oklahoma

The latest oral history interview transcript available from the history of medicine in Oregon project is that of Dr. William Richey Miller, MD, an internist who practiced in Eugene, OR, from 1949 to 1984.

Dr. Miller is a native of Oklahoma and attended the University of Oklahoma Medical School in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Interviewer Hugh Johnston, MD, asked Miller about his experiences with race during that time:
Johnston: So they had a separate ward based on color at that time?

Miller: Yes. That’s right.

Johnston: Can you tell me something about how that related to things at the time?

Miller: Well, everything seemed to go along all right, until somebody in the state legislature complained that student nurses, these young girls, he said, were working in the colored wards at the hospitals.

Johnston: White girls.

Miller: They were all white girls. All of them. And they were taking care of these patients on the colored ward. And even to the extent they were carrying bedpans, sometimes, for them. And that was absolutely intolerable. So the legislature decided to call the dean of the medical school out to testify about this. And he went prepared, though. He took a poll of all the student nurses, secret poll, and he went with this poll to a formal session of the Oklahoma state legislature. And they asked him about this practice of the nurses carrying bedpans and all sorts of things like that, doing for these colored patients. And he said, “Yes, that’s quite true.”
And he was asked, “Well, what do you think about this going on?”
“Well,” he said, “I think it’s more important to know what the student nurses think about it, not what I think about it. So I asked them. I took this secret poll and only asked them one question: Which place do you prefer to work in the hospital, on the white ward or on the colored ward?”
And the poll came back, I think it was something, there were only one or two students who said they preferred the white ward. Everybody else preferred the colored ward. And that kind of ended the legislative session. They thanked him very much for his coming out. And that was the end of that.
The reason I think the student nurses preferred that was just because they found the, overall, the colored patients were nicer and more appreciative, and people just enjoyed taking care of them.
I saw that in the homes where we went to deliver babies. A junior medical student and a senior medical student would go out in a pair to the home to deliver babies. And it was, I observed, and almost all the medical students agreed with me, all of whom were white, that we preferred to go to the colored homes rather than the white homes. And the reason, again, was, as I saw it, it was a more pleasant experience. The homes were cleaner and the people were nicer, and they appreciated very much what we were doing. It was just a more pleasant experience.

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