Just out of medical school, Dr. Melvin Davis worked in the nursery at the old Salt Lake General Hospital.
It was depressing to watch half of his little patients die, victims of infant diarrhea. He was serving his internship then, earning $25 a week while he cared for a nursery full of sick babies.In 46 years of practice, the Salt Lake doctor treated patients through serious bouts of red measles, a disease that modern immunizations have nearly eradicated. Diphtheria, polio and smallpox are just words out of medical history to today's young doctors, but Melvin Davis remembers when those epidemics brought life-threatening cases.
The protective power of immunizations is just one of the ways the medical profession has changed through the years, Davis said. Treatments for ulcers and heart disease have changed dramatically.
No longer are doctors helpless in the face of cancer. Now a doctor's medical tricks include more powerful drugs, a better understanding of how the body works and surgical remedies such as organ transplants, Davis said.
A medical practice also involves more paperwork, thanks to insurance companies and government programs such as Medicaid and Medicare.
Davis, 72, retired his stereotypical black bag recently after more than four decades of practice, mostly in the Millcreek area.
Over the years he delivered eight of his own children and most of his 27 grandchildren. After his wife died of cancer two years ago, he remarried, and his new bride brought 19 more grandchildren to add to Davis' family. In retirement, Daviswill probably have a full-time job just watching over the health of that plethora of grandchildren.
Davis, a 1944 graduate of the University of Utah Medical School's first four-year class, represents the breed of kindly family doctors made famous in TV shows like "Marcus Welby, M.D." Ten-house-call Saturday afternoons helped build his practice, and he has continued the visits for patients who need at-home care.
"I could always go talk to him," said Lillian Flowers, 84. Davis delivered Flowers' children and has doctored her for 43 years. "He would always take care of us, regardless of how busy he was."
After medical school, Davis served a stint as an Army doctor. He was discharged early by mistake, then recalled to the military eight years later in 1954. In between, he practiced for a time in Montana near the Canadian border, before setting up shop in Salt Lake City.
Nothing has marked the passage of time for Davis like watching his patients grow up. He's practiced in the area long enough to deliver the children of women he once delivered.
"I think I know of one day he called in sick," said daughter Teddy Hyatt, who has been her father's patient as well as working in his office.
She remembers a childhood spent watching her father handle emergencies, such as caring for patients at their homes when his office was closed.
Hyatt also recalls the time her father doctored himself. Some 25 years ago, Davis served as an Explorer Scout adviser. He stumbled during a canyon search-and-rescue training mission and cut his cheek. It was late by the time the mission was completed, and Davis didn't want to wake up a colleague to sew up the 1-inch gouge in his right check.
So he took advantage of the suture kit he kept in his doctor's bag.
"I started sewing it up, and everything was backwards in the mirror. You know what they say about the doctor who cares for himself? He has a fool for a patient," Davis said.
Davis doesn't plan to take it easy during retirement. While he'll miss the relationships with his patients, he plans to keep busy with family and church work. "I don't believe in retiring and doing nothing. That's bad news. I don't recommend that for my patients. Man has to feel useful."
After a lifetime spent doctoring, Davis sums up medicine this way: "It isn't an exact science. It's an art."