A few weeks ago, I wrote about times when we were sick as children. Among the Facebook comments I received, several mentioned doctors who made house calls when they were sick and several mentioned the doctor who was my pediatrician, Dr. James B. Birch. When I was writing the post, I was trying to remember if he made house calls. When some others mentioned him coming to the house with his black physician’s bag, it all came back–laying on the living room sofa while he examined me, giving me a shot or some medicine from his bag and writing out a prescription for more. How different medical care was just 50 years ago!
My other memories of Dr. Birch had to do with visits to his office, located on the North side at the corner of Wick and Illinois. It wasn’t one of these sterile medical suites you visit today. It was a house. I remember a waiting area with these wood toys, children’s size chairs, a receptionist, and a dog. His exam room was in the back. I remember a table you would climb up on, some diagrams of the human body on the walls, and this gentle man who treated you like the most important person in the world. I never feared going to the doctor’s office, and there was even a time early in my life when I wanted to be a doctor. I think Dr. Birch had a good deal to do with that.
I wondered what became of him, and what more I could learn about his background. It was hard to find much but I did locate a Vindicator article from December 25, 1978 on Google’s newspaper archives, on his retirement when he was nearly 77 years old and had practiced medicine for 50 years. From it I learned that he was born in 1902 in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. He moved to Springfield, Ohio, where his father was a college philosophy professor at Wittenberg College. He graduated from Wittenberg and studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He had a sister living in Warren and interned at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. This was followed by residencies in pediatrics in Philadelphia and at the University of Cincinnati before returning to Youngstown for good.
His first office was on Lincoln Avenue and later he was in the old Butler house on Wick Avenue before moving to the Wick and Illinois house that would serve as his office for the last thirty years of his career. The article mentions the wood toys, which came from the Swartz Toy Shop in New York City, and were still in use as he ended his practice. There was a coat rack made by a customer with wooden dogs at the base, mobiles, a facsimile of Snow White and pictures of ducks. At his retirement, he had a cockapoo. All I remember was the toys and the dogs.
The article speaks of the advances in medicine during his years of practice. In the early years, he saw many polio cases. I would have received my first polio vaccination from him. Similarly, he saw vaccines introduced for all the other childhood diseases except chicken pox (for which there is now a vaccine as well). Unfortunately, that was after my time–I had measles, mumps, rubella, and chicken pox.
He sounds like he was progressive in many ways, favoring breast feeding even when it wasn’t fashionable, deploring junk food and sugary drinks, and opposing some of the rigid schedules for mothers and young children that were advocated at one time. He sounds like a paragon of common sense! He was on the Child Guidance Clinic board when it hired its first child psychologist, and the boards of the Speech and Hearing Center and the Crippled Children’s Center, later the Easter Seal Center.
He apparently stayed in the Youngstown area after retirement and passed away on November 1, 1988. He is buried in Tod Homestead Cemetery. Many of us, and probably in some cases our children, were patients of Dr. Birch, and some of us probably owe him our lives. His gentle manner and his child friendly office in a home removed the fear of going to the doctor. Until a few weeks ago I hadn’t thought of him in years. He was also a part of growing up in Youngstown for many of us and represents an era of medical practice that is past, but worth remembering.