Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Dr. James B. Birch

James B Birch

Photo from The Vindicator, December 25, 1978, accessed from Google Newspaper Archives

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.

15 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Dr. James B. Birch

    • Dr.Calder had an office upstairs on the corner of Mahoning and Steel St. I went there as a child with my mother. I remember the green leather chairs. I also went to the dentist in a little house set back on Mahoning ave. , Dr. Sheridan I believe. My mom and I would walk from Wesley Ave. Afterwards we would stop at Webers drugstore and I would get a soda at the soda fountain and clove gum

  1. Dr Birch was my and my brother’s Doctor as well. I remember the polio shots ironically since the oral polio vaccine was available soon after. I hated shots–still do 😀!
    I remember riding the Mahoning bus and getting a transfer to get there. We only had one car and Dad took it to work.
    Great memory for me–thanks.
    Michelle Humans White

  2. Hi Bob. Dr Birch was my grandfather. He lived with us at the end of his life until he moved into park Vista. Loved seeing this article. Thank you!

    • Katie, wonderful to hear from you. Saw many comments on Facebook about what a wonderful doctor he was. All of us were curious about whatever happened to the wooden toaster with the wood pieces of bread. My parents also lived at Park Vista at the end of their lives. Thanks so much for writing!

  3. Good morning,
    Thank you for the wonderful story about my wife’s (Katie Birch Ricciuti) father, Dr Birch. After he retired,he lived with us for three years in Liberty where he enjoyed his last years with his faithful dog Chico. He was a remarkable man and it gives Katie great pleasure that he is still thought of by his patients. We still have the famous “black bag”, which will be donated to the Mahoning Valley Historical Society.
    We saw your post on his granddaughter (Katherine Ricciuti Kline) Facebook. She lives in Worthington Hills as does her sister, Kara Manchester.

    • Thank you for filling out the story of his last years, which I had no information about. Many were curious what happened to his wooden toys. It turns out we live on the other side of the railroad tracks from your daughters, in Western Hills. Our son is a Worthington Kilbourne grad.

      • Dr Jim had two children and five grandchildren. Son, Anthony Birch (passed away) has a son, Sebastian, classical piano player and professor at Kent State, and daughter Anna who lives in Europe.

        Daughter, Katie Birch Ricciuti, has three children, myself James Bruce, and Katie Kline and Kara Manchester. Both of my sisters married wonderful Youngstown men that could fill another post.

        There are six great grandchildren of Dr Jim on my mom’s side. My two were born and raised in Boston. My sisters two each all are growing up in Worthington Hills and attend or attended Kilbourne. Kara’s oldest is currently in her second year at Wittenberg following her great grandfathers legacy.

  4. Bob,

    My thank you as well for this remembrance of a truly remarkable man, physician and grandfather. Along with my father, he is by far one of the most instrumental men in my life. I am named after him, and my son, James Birch Ricciuti, is named after him.

    My entire family and his great grandchildren who never had the chance to meet him or be cared by him will cherish this piece.

    Thank you

    James Bruce Ricciuti

    • James, what an unexpected pleasure it has been to hear from you, your sister, and father, who would have known him far better than I. That all of you hold him in such high regard adds lustre to his reputation in the Mahoning Valley. In my mind, he is probably still the standard against which I measure other doctors. Thanks so much for taking time to write. Bob

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