Medical history

Exhibit considers evolution of health care in U.P


Journal Staff Writer

MARQUETTE — With the opening of the new UP Health System-Marquette hospital slated for this spring, the Marquette Regional History Center is featuring a retrospective exhibit on medical care in the area entitled “The Changing Face of Medicine: A History of U.P. Healthcare.”

“We just thought it was a good time to reflect back on where we’ve been,” said Jo Wittler, curator at the Marquette Regional History Center.

The exhibit takes visitors through hundreds of years of medicine in the area, featuring items and photos from many different eras, from early Native American medicines used in the area to patent medicines, to the first hospitals in the area.

It gives attendees a chance to understand how the field of medicine in the Upper Peninsula evolved throughout epidemics, wars, the era of the country doctor, the advent of vaccines and germ-theory, the development of the first hospitals and nursing schools in the area, and much more, Wittler said.

“I think in a way we don’t see how far we’ve come how quickly,” she said.

For many years, much of the medical care in the U.P. was done in the personal homes of private physicians, or through house calls, Wittler said. While many may think of country doctors and house calls as a long bygone era, the exhibit features a 20th-century example of this type of care, illustrated by the story and items of Dr. Paul Van Riper, a well-known area doctor who made house calls throughout the 1900s.

“We have this coat that was lined with beaver fur (in the exhibit) and he used to wear that because he would go make the house calls, go get out there in the middle of winter to go deliver a baby, go to someone’s house,” she said. “So this concept of the country doctor — he didn’t start practicing until the 1900s — so he was, of course, active for a long time, 50 years or so, but it was in the 60s that he retired.”

Van Riper and other doctors who operated in this fashion often took barters for their work, Wittler said, noting that the U.P.’s medical professionals weren’t “setting out to make money in this field.”

“There were people like Dr. Van Riper who were out in these mining locations in small towns and they were really dedicated, a lot of physicians. If someone needed them, they went to go see them,” she said, adding that Van Riper, for example, would take eggs or other items, such as the aforementioned beaver fur-lined coat, in exchange for her services. While country doctors like Van Riper were still practicing, hospitals were forming, developing and expanding in the area, Wittler said.

“There was a group of five (physicians) who got together and they had the City Hospital and then that became St. Luke’s just very briefly and then that became Marquette General,” she said.

When the first hospitals were formed, many doctors were the only physician in their department and were responsible for a wide variety of tasks, Wittler said.

“When you get into the transition in the 1940s, 50s and 60s when Marquette was becoming more of a specialized regional medical center, so when these doctors would come up … they’re setting up a whole department, so they have to train the nurses, and if they need to be on call, there’s no backup for them, so they can’t take a vacation. It’s just that level of commitment,” she said.

As hospitals became a part of the area, they began selling what could be considered an early form of health insurance, flat fee, pre-paid tickets that could be bought to cover a hospital visit in case of injury or illness, she said.

“In the early part of the 1900s and I think this was true in other communities as well, (the hospitals) would sell these tickets,” Wittler said.

Hospitals would send people to sell these tickets around the area, at locations such as remote logging camps where the work was dangerous and regular company hospitals and doctors, such as those found in some mining settlements, were often not available.

“They would send people out into the woods and they would sell them these tickets,” she said, noting that one such example from St. Mary’s Hospital is even on display in the exhibit for visitors to view, she said.

While a great deal has changed over time, Wittler said visitors may also be surprised to find out about aspects of the medical field that have remained relatively similar over the past hundred years.

“When you look at surgical tools they haven’t changed that much, the ones from the Civil War sometimes look a bit older but we have a surgical set from the First World War which is really amazing,” she said, noting that even the most of the WWI-era set of surgical tools “are similar to what you would use today or at least until recently.”

Whether you’re interested in what’s changed, what’s stayed the same, or who was involved in U.P. medicine in the past, the exhibit offers a wealth of information and an opportunity to reflect back upon the development of the healthcare in U.P. while looking toward the future, she said.

“It’s amazing how much has happened in a relatively short period of time,” Wittler said.

The exhibit, which was sponsored by the Upper Peninsula Medical Center and Marquette-Alger Medical Society, will run through Dec. 31 at the Marquette Regional History Center, located at 145 W. Spring Street in Marquette. For more information, visit or call 906-226-3571.

Cecilia Brown can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is