Doctors’ letters document love, medicine across states

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October 15th, 2012

Omaha, NE – A historical story of love, medicine and illness is contained in a collection of letters from the 1930s between two doctors: one stationed in Nebraska; one in Louisiana. That collection has been published in a new book: The Courtship of Two Doctors: A 1930s Love Story of Letters, Hope and Healing.

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About seven years ago, Martha Fitzgerald sat down with her father and pored through hundreds of letters he’d written to her mother, and she to him. “It was fascinating,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m a journalist by experience and a historian by education, and I very quickly realized that this was a treasure of historical material, of primary source material for historians.”

Martha Fitzgerald, Author (Courtesy photo)

The letters were written in the late 1930s, when Fitzgerald’s parents Joe and Alice Holoubek were first courting. Two doctors in training, they’d met during a fellowship at the Mayo Clinic and continued their romance while Alice went to medical school in Louisiana, and Joe in Omaha. After Joe Holoubek died five years ago, Fitzgerald sifted through the collection of 800 letters, annotating and transcribing. She said the exchange took place at a significant time in American history and provides a window into life during the waning years of the Great Depression.

Fitzgerald said both her parents were training at public hospitals and served the poor under often dangerous conditions. “It was an era before antibiotics, and so it was quite dangerous,” Fitzgerald said. “In both my parent’s cases, they lost months of their internships to serious illness.”

“My father was hospitalized twice with infections on a cut finger and once with Scarlet Fever,” she said. “He was put for three weeks in semi-darkness in a city isolation hospital. My mother contracted tuberculosis on her first rotation in internal medicine.”

The Courtship of Two Doctors contains an abridged version of a vast collection of letters that provide insight into the medical field during the late 1930s.

Fitzgerald said the letters also provide insight into the differences between medical training in the two states. She said Nebraska offered rigorous, hands-on training in primary care preparing students for work in rural areas where they’d be pretty much on their own. A lot of what her father worked on, she said, provoked an incredulous response from her mother. “(My father) was a student physician for an orphanage handling… 21 or 23 children with everything from tonsillitis to ear aches to actually setting a broken bone there in the orphanage when they couldn’t get him to a hospital.”

“And this is when they’re seniors,” she said. “When he’s writing about what he’s doing to Alice, to my mother, she’s remarking I can’t believe they let you do that, they won’t let us do anything like that.”

Fitzgerald said her father’s training in Omaha provided a foundation of self-reliance that served him well in his later career. Both Holoubeks were instrumental in establishing the Louisiana State University School of Medicine in Shreveport.

Fitzgerald provided copies of the full collection of letters to both her parents’ alma maters. The collection is in the McGoogan Library of Medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Fitzgerald also published an abridged version of the letters in her book The Courtship of Two Doctors: A 1930s Love Story of Letters, Hope and Healing.

Fitzgerald will be speaking at The Bookworm in Omaha October 17th at 6 p.m. and at the UNMC Medical Humanities Lecture October 18 at 5:30 p.m.

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