Images, Expectations, and Experience

Documenting American Medicine, 1930 - 1960

In this section of "American Medicine’s Golden Age?" we present you with a variety of primary sources that document Americans’ expectations of and encounters with health care in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. As you examine the images, statistical data, and narrative accounts provided here, we ask you to interpret them and determine what they tell you about Americans’ image and experience of medicine at mid-century.

Two central questions should guide your thinking as you work through Image, Expectations, and Experience:

  • What expectations did the medical profession and the public have of medicine in this period?
  • Did the average American’s experience with the health care system in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s confirm or contradict these expectations?

This section will give you information that you can use to begin answering these questions, but it will also challenge you to think about how historians can use sources to understand the past.

For instance, what can a photograph tell viewers six decades later about the health experience of the people pictured, or the importance and representativeness of the subject depicted?


How can statistical data, which presents the aggregate experience of a population, be used to understand an individual’s record of health and illness?


How can historians determine what fiction and advice literature tell us about the actual ideas, experiences, and events of the past? Should such evidence carry the same weight as first-hand narratives of past events?

Finally, how much do historians need to know about the creators and gatherers of these sources—visual images, statistical data, prescriptive literature, and narratives—to determine what they tell about the past?

Structure & Strategy

Image, Expectations, and Experience has three parts.

Part 1, Interpreting Evidence of the Past, introduces you to a typical historical source—in this case, a photograph—from this period. This interactive demonstration of how to "read" a source will prepare you to analyze such sources later in the unit and will help you begin answering the broader questions about American medicine’s "Golden Age" that we have posed.


In Part 2, Exhibit, you will encounter texts, narratives, images, and statistics that together document Americans’ image, expectations, and experience of medicine at mid-century. At the end of this subsection, you will respond on-line to short questions about these source materials.


In the final part, Part 3, Essay, we provide a set of source materials relating to Americans' experience of medicine at mid-century. You will write a short essay (to be submitted to your instructor off-line) that analyzes these documents, images, and data and uses them to support a more substantial argument about American medicine’s "golden age."



To move through the site, click the buttons at the bottom of each page. The Up button takes you up a level in the site, and the Back and Next buttons allow you to move backward and forward through the pages that comprise this section of the site. You can also move around within Image, Expectations, and Experience by following the links in the column on the left of your screen, which map the overall structure of this section. Please feel free to return to these opening pages at any time to review the main questions for this section; in fact, you will want to print out a copy and keep it on hand to guide your thinking as you work.
Planning your work time:

We suggest that you allot about three hours to work through  Image, Expectations, and Experience, approximately one hour per part. Of course, preparing your responses to the questions at the end of Parts 1, 2, and 3 will take additional time beyond that. When you begin writing your responses to these questions, we suggest that you print out copies of the photos and documents you plan to discuss; this way you will have them on hand and be able to work on your assignments even if technical difficulties prevent you from accessing the materials on-line.