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Interview with Dr. Jean Smith

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Smith, Jean ; Wood, Wanda


Dr. Jean Smith speaks about her motivations for becoming a physician and why she settled in Chenango Bridge, NY.  She received her education at Syracuse University during World War II and went into practice with her brother, Dr. Robert Smith.  She discusses several aspect of her career, including house calls and early use of penicillin and antibiotics. She also discusses working with Chenango Valley Central Schools as a school physician and in the field of family practice, the development of the Chenango Bridge Medical Group, and emerging ethical questions in regard to modern medicine. She describes her interest in current medical practice and natural food, some of her post-retirement interests, as well as the beginning of the clinical campus program at the State University of New York at Binghamton.




This audio file and digital image may only be used for educational purposes. Please cite as: Broome County Oral History Project, Special Collections, Binghamton University Libraries, Binghamton University, State University of New York. For usage beyond fair use please contact the Binghamton University Libraries Special Collections for more information.

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Broome County Oral History Project


33:40 Minutes ; 18:44 Minutes


Broome County Oral History Project

Interview with: Dr. Jean Smith

Interviewed by: Wanda Wood

Date of interview: 2 May 1978

Wanda: This is Wanda Wood interviewing Dr. Jean Smith of Highover Rd. in Chenango Bridge. The date is the second of May, 1978. Doctor Jean, you've recently retired as a family physician after twenty-some years in—a our community and we're interested in your life experiences in—a this Broome County area. A—would you begin by telling us where you were born?

Dr. Jean: Well, I was born and raised in Syracuse, but both of my parents came from Broome County and they were born and raised in Windsor, New York, where my grandfather was a dentist. My mother and father both went to Syracuse to—to—a college and—a they later settled there. And I spent my summers in this area, so that I was always interested in coming back here. And when I finished my training I came to Chenango Bridge and started practicing in family practice with my brother, who was already here in family practice. Ah—I wanted to be a doctor as long as I could remember. I do remember when I was in—a high school, we had to write a paper on—a “My Vocation” and I wrote about nursing, but I looked into nursing schools and decided that I wouldn't be an ordinary nurse, I would be the very best, so I told my brother I was going to Yale and get a Master of Nursing and—a so he said, "Well how long will that take?" (Laughing) I said "Six years." And he said, ''Well in seven years you could go on to medical school, you—" and so that clinched it. I knew that's really what I preferred. But I went to school at Syracuse in—a during—it was during the war years. And there were four girls in the class and about forty-five fellows and they were all in the service, except one. And—a so they were on the gravy train. They had their tuition paid and their books and their microscopes and—a a nice fat check which they used for gambling! (chuckles) We told them that if they used that money they could pay our way through too, but they didn't like that idea too well. But we did have a good class and we had lots of fun and—a people ask me today if I had trouble—being a woman in medical school or in medicine. I guess I was just too naïve to know that if there was trouble I didn't find it. But I hear the women libbers today and realize that I wa—probably was discriminated against in many small ways, but I just ignored it and it was no problem at the time, but I am sympathetic with the girls who are trying to get real equality today and opportunities.

Wanda: Well, when you came to—to this area, how many women physicians were in practice?

Dr.Jean: There were five or six here at the time and I can think of six of us now who are retired and—a I'm not aware of more than two or three in the area that are practicing now. There's a real—I think there's a real need for women physicians in the area now. But surprisingly enough there were about five or six at that time.

Wanda: Dr. Mary Ross was one of them, wasn't she?

Dr. Jean: Yeah—Dr. Mary Ross was a—family physician for a lot of people in the area; Dr. Myrtle Wilcox who just recently retired; and—a Dr. Florence Warner who retired a few years ago, but she's still doing the Well Baby Clinics; and Dr.Connie Vitanza came just after I did in pedia—pediatrics—she retired last year; and there was an allergist, Dr. Vencko I think her name was. She's still around but I don't know if she's doing allergy or not. Her husband's a surgeon.

Wanda: So when you—when you came here your brother who was known as Dr. Bob, and you are known as Dr. Jean—

Dr. Jean: That's right.

Wanda: —a—he was, he had already—a—been in practice for a couple of years, wasn't it?

Dr. Jean: Yes. He graduated from med school about six years before I did, but he was in the service for a while. He'd started practicing in Chenango Bridge—was only here about a year, when Pearl Harbor occurred and he went in the Navy and then came back to Chenango Bridge after the war. So he'd only been back about a year—or maybe two—when I finished and joined him. But we both liked the area a lot. I think one of the reasons was—a it was a mixed practice of rural and suburban. We had the feeling that we (were) really needed in the country—the farmers and the country people—and—and yet we had the stimulation of suburban people. And—a—a—we both enjoyed our work with the school because we made friends and a good percentage of the administrators and the teachers were our patients and friends and that was very stimulating, and has been over the years. I've enjoyed that.

Wanda: Now you speak almost casually about this rural practice, but (laughs) I seem to remember a lot of your calls were done in the back hills, so to speak.

Dr. Jean: Well, we made a lot of house calls in those days and—a we got to know the families—a real well—traveled in a lot of snow and a lot of mud. I remember it was always a challenge and fun to drive up in the country in all kinds of weather but I did have to rely on friends every now and then in the middle of the night to help out. I used to call on Bruce Russell or Ron Brown or somebody to drive with me on some bad nights. I think they enjoyed it, too. Sometimes we had to call the ambulance and the ambulance drivers would complain and say what a terrible time they had getting up there, and they'd suddenly realize that we were there too, and had been there (laughs) for a while. But it was—it was an exciting time. It was just the beginning of antibiotics then, too. I remember going up into the country and giving some of the first shots of penicillin in the area. Nowadays they give about a million units of penicillin a day and we used to—a have little tablets of ten thousand-unit penicillin and we'd dissolve 'em and put ‘em in the syringe and (laughs) we used to get good results. We'd cure pneumonia with just a little bit of penicillin. It was terrib—pretty expensive at that time, too, so we didn't use much. It was hard to get. In fact it was so close to the beginning of antibiotic—era—1947 was when I came to Chenango Bridge—penicillin had not been out long. I think it was about 1940 or 1942 it was first used. And—a in the thirties was the first that they had sulfa even. Before that I remember neighbors that died of pneumonia and infections and a lot of the kids I knew had big mastoid operation scars because they didn't have any other real way to cure their infections. And—a in fact my brother's wife died when he was a medical student from—a infection that today would be considered just a—a—a nuisance, post-operatively, and a shot of penicillin or a few antibiotics would take care of the situation. And—a so when you think that all—all of this—a advance in medicine that has come in, not only in my lifetime but in the few years that I practiced—it's pretty amazing. And—a—

Wanda: How about—a polio? Was that—at the time you started practice there was no—a nothing that could be done actually to prevent it, was there?

Dr. Jean: No—every summer we used to dread—a summer coming on when the kids first started to have symptoms of headache and vomiting and th—it was always a big worry as to which ones were going to develop polio—and there were always a few every summer. Some summers there were more than a few and I think it was about 1954 that—a we had our first—a program for polio vaccine and the kids were called polio pioneers 'cause only half of them got the real McCoy and half of them got a placebo-type of shot, and they were just doing—a their first big public health studies in—to the value of polio vaccine and it was so successful that—a I think it was 1955 that we—a had another project where we were giving the real McCoy and—a to just as many youngsters as we could reach. I remember—a we had—a large clinics at the schools through Broome County. It seems to me with the shots it was all done through the schools then later when we had the oral vaccine, it was—had big polio Sundays where the entire population could come. But that first year it was just available for a certain age group, um, kids that were most susceptible and—a it was just done through the schools, it was not available for adults in that year.

Wanda: Now at that time—a you were probably—had been appointed the school physician for Chenango Valley, hadn't you?

Dr. Jean: Um-hmm, yeah I was Chenango Valley School Physician—most of those years. That was the same year that I got polio myself in—a, I think it was—a September or October. I—a was treating a little five months old baby at home and—a about—a few days later I came down with polio and I was laid up for a few months and went back part-time on—with—a crutches and braces, but kept at it—a my physiotherapy and got along real well and now I have practically nothing—to show for it.

Wanda: Nothing to show for it ... (both chuckle) that's the way to do things... Is there anything else you'd like to say about—a the school—um health programs?

Dr.Jean: Well one of the—a—a most satisfying parts of my work in the school was working with the school nurse—teachers who were—a all very well trained and very dedicated people and our school administrator—a Mr.Galloway, was very interested in school health and we had a—good program where we really tried to identify youngsters who needed special attention and special services and see that they got them. And the nurses were given the time and the help to work with the families and see that they followed through with any recommendations that we made. I really enjoyed that part of my work.

Wanda: You've—a—probably the—the larger part of your practice has been with a—obstetrics and pediatrics, hasn't it? You've always enjoyed working with babies and I think that's what you're remembered for mostly around here—is your excellent care—

Dr. Jean: Well, I've probably delivered well over a thousand babies or maybe fifteen hundred babies in that—a length of time, and—a took care of most of them and—a yes—I took care of the whole family and I enjoyed knowing the whole family and—a I—a I like to think that I—that I am a family physician, and I'm really proud that I've always belonged to the Academy of General Practice, which is now the Academy of Family Practice. And it was one of the first groups that required post-graduate—a—a courses to maintain your membership. Right from the beginning I've always taken a lot of—a courses. We've had to have a hundred and fifty hours, at least, every three years and that—a—I'd combine that with travel. I'd go to different medical centers throughout the country and get acquainted with them and keep up to date on things and—a in 1971 I took the two-day board examination to become a specialist in Family Practice. That's the most recent specialty in the United States as far as having—a a specialty board and special certification, and happily many of the younger physicians today are beginning to go into that specialty, since it's taken on—a little more respectability. And many other specialities in some states now are requiring—a approved post-graduate hours and—a followed our leadership in that. I've been active over the years, too in the American Women's Medical Association and on their scholarship committees. It's interesting going over the scholarship applications today. The budgets of the girls in medical school are—it costs ten or twelve thousand dollars a year now, to go to medical school. And I used to beg, borrow or steal—two hundred dollars four times a year to pay my tuition (laughs) and I lived at home, so that wasn't any problem. But—a it's amazing that—a these youngsters are not discouraged. They go right ahead and do the same thing—beg, borrow or steal, I guess. There are ma—many of them, their parents aren't supporting them anymore in graduate school and they're going in debt for 20 or 30,000 dollars in—a—with government loans and scholarships and they're just thinking nothing of it.

Wanda: Would you—a advise young people to go into this—general practice rather than a specialization these days?

Dr. Jean: Well I think it depends a lot on the—a the individual and where their interests lie. I would say it would be one of the most rewarding—a—a specialties certainly because—a you're dealing more in the—in the—breadth of problems—the family problems, the medical problems rather than the—than going deeply into one area, but it involves the, the emotional health and the social well-being of the family as well as their medical problems and it's—it's really fascinating and very, very rewarding to get to work with the family as a whole. And—a I—it's a whole new ball game in medicine today, however. There's so many new special areas—a that one needs to be familiar with and a lot of social changes that—a necessitate changes in the way one practices, and it—a—

Wanda: So the Family Physician is—is a specialty in this age?

Dr. Jean: Yes. It really is, yeah. A family physician has a lot of special knowledge about the family—about the individual problems of families and various ages and various kinds of problems that families have that a specialist—a wouldn't be expected to know. So a family physician has a lot to offer now—a that a specialist in—a, for instance surgery or neurology or something else—a—a would really be out of his bailiwick.

Wanda: Do you want to tell us something about the development of the Chenango Bridge Medical Group? A—first there were you and your brother—Dr. Jean and Dr. Bob—and—a practicing in his home?

Dr. Jean: Um-hmm. That's right. Then—a we had—a, Dr.Howard came and joined us, and there were three of us practicing from—a Bob's home. Then Bob went back to take his specialty training in surgery and—a Dr.Peterson, I think, was the next one to join us. Anyway, over the years we've gradually enlarged the group, but we've tried to keep it—a, basically a family or primary care—a group and just added specialists as we felt there was a need for them.

Wanda: When you first—a went into the building on Chenango Bridge Road—when was that built?

Dr. Jean: (laughs) Gee, I don't remember, I should have checked on some of the dates—

Wanda: Well, it was shortly after the two of you had taken on another doctor in the group, wasn't it?

Dr. Jean: Yeah. I think there were four of us when we built—a the original building and we've added on to that twice and—a now with the most recent addition there are facilities for twelve physicians. We've never had that many. 

Wanda: Plus the X-ray and the medical lab.

Dr. Jean: X-ray, lab, physiotherapy and—a with room for expansion—a. As I say, we could take probably—a two or three more physicians, as far as the space is concerned. But the offices—a—the business office takes up quite a little space now, too, with all the paperwork involved in the practice of medicine. We need a secretary for various special areas. We have one who does almost all Workmen's Compensation and on that does mostly—a Welfare and Medicare and Medicaid, and there's all kinds of billing machines and things that our professors never told us about when we were in medical school!

Wanda: That's another specialization, isn't it?

Dr. Jean: Yes. Yeah it is. We have a full time business manager and he's in charge of—I don't know how many employees—eight or ten, anyway.

Wanda: Well this—a group has—a filled a great need in this community because—a when Dr. Bob first came here, of course there was no physician in this particular area of the Town of Chenango and—a with the post-war growth of housing around here and the consequent baby boom—a your services were greatly appreciated in this community, I remember.

Dr. Jean: Well, we've enjoyed trying to provide that service and enlarging the Group as we needed to. I was thinking about the switchboard at the office. It has—a, of course, many extensions and—a we have to have—a a girl at our switchboard all the time and I remember when we first started. Remember the old town switchboard and Lilian Pierson was the operator? And we'd—I'd go on a house call up around Chenango Forks, a—ten o'clock at night and before I'd left there the phone would ring and the switchboard—I mean the—a telephone operator down in Chenango Bridge—where was it, over the old railroad station or post-office? Somewhere down there—

Wanda: Yeah.

Dr. Jean: —anyway, she—she'd follow me around the country and tell me the next—a, next—a house call to make, 'cause somebody'd call in and she'd know right where I was, I didn't have to tell her. And—a that was kinda fun to keep in touch that way. And of course we didn't have anybody at night—other than the doctor's wife usually, that answered the phone.

Wanda: How about emergency services? When—when you started and—and compared with what they are today with our present set-up in the Town of Chenango? 

Dr. Jean: Well, when there were two of us we alternated nights and weekends, all year round there was always one of us on—a—hopefully available. We tried to be available. And—a with the Group, we have rotated the various specialities. There's always been a surgeon and a medical person on call in addition to the general physician on call, but—a in recent years the—a ambulance service and the hospital emergency rooms have been very well staffed with medical people and paramedical people. And so I'm sure the service is very much better than it was at that time—a, but they have a lot of sophisticated equipment to work with, which—a of course we didn't have, we did the best we could. 

Wanda: It was simple but it was good.

Dr. Jean: Some of the new sophisticated equipment is—a raising some ethical questions that are going to be very difficult to deal with and—a I can see that we're going to need a lot of help from other fields—a beside medicine, in solving the ethical problems that are arising. A—for instance, I myself carry a card—a which states that I don't want to be kept alive by all of our fancy equipment if there’s no reasonable hope of recover—recovery physically or mentally. And—a this is not a legal document but—a—it—it lets my family and my physicians know how I feel about it and—a—a—I'm very much concerned about some of the so-called advances in medicine which are miraculous and really great where they're—where they should be applied, but the question is when and where should they be applied?

Wanda: (Would that) be in any particular case, such as older patients who are—have lived their useful years and are ready to go?

Dr. Jean: Right. We used to say pneumonia is the friend of the aged, and—a I can think of a number of elderly people who—a died fairly quickly, quickly and easily at home with pneumonia, after various other problems, but today we're almost forced to use antibiotics if someone has pneumonia because it's something we can cure. But—a I'm—it's very difficult to make decisions as to a—when to—a limit your treatment in an older person or a terminal person. These are some of the things that the younger physicians—a are having to face and—a are—a… These kinds of things are beginning to be incorporated in the medical curriculum to realize that—a physicians aren't gods and—a we don't have the answers and we need help in making decisions. One—a thing that I am quite pleased about recently—it seems to me that people in general are beginning to take more responsibility for their own health care, both preventative medicine and in deciding what they—how far they want to go in treating their illnesses, and I think that's as it should be. Physicians should present—a the available resources and—a the family and the patient and the doctor together should decide what they want to do with the things that are available.

Wanda: How about this—a modern craze, it seems, on—a health foods and natural—a nutrition. What do you think about that? Do you have any thoughts about it?

Dr. Jean: Yes. It's a—there are two sides of it that—a, it seems to me, that the young people today—a who are interested in taking care of their bodies and eating properly and exercising and—a taking some responsibility for themselves—a that, that's very good, but I'm really alarmed at some of the information that they are getting from faddists and—a—a all the books that are being written for profit, and—a where it's very difficult for—a people to make up their minds as to what is legitimate and what is 'quacky.' And—a I think we have to rely a lot on the—a whole scientific community and their—a the dietetic associations and people that have really studied nutrition over the years, instead of just picking up the first book on the newsstand and thinking it sounds like it's gonna be the answer to everybody's prayers.

Wanda: Can you remember any instances—a during your practice when you—a had problems with people who were trying to cure themselves?

Dr. Jean: No, not too much, I think they probably didn't—a—a—confide in me what they were doing if they—if they did. I remember running into a few·mushroom poisonings, where people would go out and get a beautiful batch of mushrooms and get a couple—a bad ones. That always—a was rather alarming, but I've noticed today there's a lot of courses in mushroom identification, so maybe people know more about it than they did.

Wanda: Well now that—a you are retired, what are your…what are your activities going to be in the next—a few years?

Dr. Jean: Well I retired—a not because I planned to, but for health reasons and—a I had many interests and hobbies in photography and traveling, and taken up some new ones—sculpture, and been going to some—a workshops in counseling and—a personal growth and so I've got a lot of interests. I had thought that I might do some volunteer work in medicine, but I have discovered that there are a lot of other areas in this world that I never even heard about before, that are well worth looking into and—a I'm really enjoying exploring new areas. Never had time for it before. So I—some of the  volunteer things in the medical field are—are having to wait at the moment; I don't know whether I'll get back into that or not.

Wanda: You are involved with the—the new medical program at SUNY?

Dr. Jean: I have been on—a the curriculum committee for the new clinical campus. The clinical campus at SUNY is a—a new development and they’ve appointed—a—faculty already. We have a Dean, Assistant Dean, and some educators that are planning a program. What it actually is, is half of the junior and senior medical school classes from Syracuse will be coming to the Binghamton area for their clinical training and—a they're not coming until, I believe 1980. There will be twenty students. We already have some Fifth Pathway students that are working in the hospitals here. These are students who have had—a their medical education overseas and are fulfilling some special clinical work here. And we're developing the faculty and—a hopefully we'll have some training in teaching for our local people. Um—these programs are being set up now, well ahead of the time the students are going to arrive. And it's been a real stimulation to the medical community here and I'm sure it'll continue to be now. Um—the emphasis, I think, is going to be on primary care, although all the specialties will be involved and—a I…it seems to me that it's getting off to a very good start. There's some good people involved in the program.

Wanda: Well, is there anything else that you'd like to have put on this tape while we're at it?

Dr. Jean: I think we've covered quite a little ground here already. Maybe another day we'll come up with some special topics.

Wanda: Well if you have anything to add later on we can still—a do that, however I want to thank you for the time you've taken this morning and for your service to this community.

Dr. Jean: It's been fun.

Date of Interview



Wood, Wanda


Smith, Jean


33:40 Minutes ; 18:44 Minutes

Date of Digitization



Broome County Oral History Project

Subject LCSH

Smith, Jean -- Interviews; Broome County (N.Y.) -- History; Chenango Bridge (N.Y.); Women physicians -- Interviews; Syracuse University; World War, 1939-1945; Vaccination; Chenango Valley Central Schools; Chenango Valley Medical Group; State University of New York at Binghamton Clinical Campus; Polio

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This audio file and digital image may only be used for educational purposes. Please cite as: Broome County Oral History Project, Special Collections, Binghamton University Libraries, Binghamton University, State University of New York. For usage beyond fair use please contact the Binghamton University Libraries Special Collections for more information.



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The Broome County Oral History Project was conceived and administered by the Senior Services Unit of the Office for the Aging. Funding for this project was provided by the Broome County Office of Employment and Training (C.E.T.A.), with additional funding from the Senior Service Unit of the National Council on Aging and Broome… More

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