Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2021/Summer/105/Section 15/Arthur Graham Harris

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Arthur Graham Harris[edit | edit source]

Overview[edit | edit source]

Arthur Graham Harris was a general practitioner from Fairfield, North Carolina. He was interviewed by W.O. Saunders for the Federal Writers' Project.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Harris was one of eight children to his father who was a corn and pig farmer. He graduated from the University of Maryland in 1905 in medicine and pharmacy. He then interned at a hospital in Maryland for one year before returning home to the rural town of Fairfield, NC, to form a medical practice.

Career[edit | edit source]

After Harris’s father died, he took over ownership of his farm. During the period of the First World War, Harris would make as much as $5,000 a year by leasing the farm out to tenants. He also supplemented his income by working part-time for the government. He maintained a profitable practice and through his various sources of income, he was able to lead an extravagant lifestyle. He would buy expensive cars and would wear them out in a year. He was also known to be an affluent and generous person in the community, regularly handing out expensive cigars to people. As the Great Depression hit Fairfield, he was unable to make money off the farm and was no longer employed by the government. As such, his income was restricted to less than $700 a year he now made from his private practice. As a rural doctor, he also had the cost of procuring and stocking the medication he sold. Many of the families in Fairfield now lived in poverty and were working for the Works Progress Administration. During the Great Depression, 80% of the residents could not afford medicine or healthcare, which greatly affected the profitability of his practice. Typhoid and Dysentery were endemic in the town, and some families were so poor, they lived practically on cornbread.

Later Life[edit | edit source]

Harris and his wife had two sons who both went to college, one who went on to work in New York, and the other, John, who returned home to take over the farm from Harris. Harris’s wife was keen for John to be in a white-collar profession, but Harris thought that kind of work was too insecure and insisted he returned home. Harris found a hobby of raising and selling turkeys. He continued to run his medical practice afterwards, but his income was never as much as before the Great Depression.

Views on Universal Healthcare[edit | edit source]

Harris was a strong supporter of socialized healthcare and the Wagner National Health Bill. He claimed that both doctors and patients would benefit. Doctors would be happier on a fixed income paid by the State and free to give services to anyone who needs them, and patients would no longer bear the cost of healthcare and wait until they are gravely ill until they visit a doctor.

Social Issues[edit | edit source]

Public Health and the Affordability of Healthcare in the 1930s[edit | edit source]

The rise in unemployment and decrease in wages caused by the Great Depression greatly affected the ability of many people to afford medical care.[1]This was in addition to a rise in the cost of health care throughout the 1920s. Hospital costs rose from 7.6% of total family medical bills in 1918, to 13% in 1929. Costs continued to rise throughout the depression, eventually reaching 40% in 1934.[1]

Counterintuitively, the negative effects the depression had on the affordability of public health contrasted with a decline in mortality and rise in life expectancy in people throughout the US from 1929-1933. During the Great Depression, the life expectancy of white males and females increased by 6 years, and non-white males and females saw an increase of 8 years.[2] Of the six causes of death that caused two-thirds of total mortality, only suicides increased during the Great Depression, accounting for around 2% of all deaths.[2]

Franklin D. Roosevelt delivering the State of the Union Address which mentions the Second Bill of Rights

The rise in suicides was resolved in part due to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal relief program starting from 1933, which resulted in a drastic decrease in suicide rates throughout the 1930s.[3]

Push for Socialized Healthcare After The Great Depression[edit | edit source]

During his first term of office, Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to include publicly funded health care programs in his Social Security legislation. The reforms were strongly opposed by the American Medical Association.[4] Roosevelt's Committee on Economic Security feared that the inclusion of health insurance on the bill would threaten the passage of the entire Social Security legislation, and so it was therefore excluded. Any further changes in social policy were extremely difficult after a conservative resurgence in the 1938 election.[4]

Roosevelt publicly endorsed socialized healthcare in his 1944 election campaign. He proposed the Second Bill of Rights which would have guaranteed universal medical care and “the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health”. He also supported the Wagner-Murray-Dingell Bill of 1945 which proposed to create a national medical and hospitalization program, but the bill was ultimately rejected.[5]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.     Gorman, Linda. "The history of health care costs and health insurance." Wisconsin Policy Research Institute Report 19, no. 10 (2006): 1-31.
  2. 2.0 2.1 1.     Tapia Granados, J. A., and A. V. Diez Roux. “Life and Death during the Great Depression.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, no. 41 (2009): 17290–95. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0904491106.
  3. 1.     Price V. Fishback, Michael R. Haines, Shawn Kantor; Births, Deaths, and New Deal Relief during the Great Depression. The Review of Economics and Statistics 2007; 89 (1): 1–14. doi: https://doi.org/10.1162/rest.89.1.1
  4. 4.0 4.1 1.     A Brief History: Universal Health Care Efforts in the US.” PNHP, May 3, 2021. https://pnhp.org/a-brief-history-universal-health-care-efforts-in-the-us
  5. 1.     “Social Security.” Social Security History. Accessed July 19, 2021. https://www.ssa.gov/history/corningchap3.html