For his groundbreaking 1948 LIFE magazine photo essay, “Country Doctor” — seen here, in its entirety, followed by several unpublished photographs from the shoot — photographer W. Eugene Smith spent 23 days in Kremmling, Colo., chronicling the day-to-day challenges faced by an indefatigable general practitioner named Dr. Ernest Ceriani.
Seven decades later, Smith’s images from those three weeks remain as fresh as they were the moment he took them, and as revelatory as they surely felt to millions of LIFE’s readers as they encountered Dr. Ceriani, his patients and his fellow tough, uncompromising Coloradans. Born on a sheep ranch in Wyoming, Dr. Ceriani attended Chicago’s Loyola School of Medicine but opted not to pursue a medical career in the big city. In 1946, after a stint in the Navy, he was recruited by the hospital in Kremmling, and he and wife Bernetha, who was born in Colorado, settled into the rural town. Dr. Ceriani was the sole physician for an area of about 400 square miles, inhabited by some 2,000 people. Eugene Smith’s at-times almost unsettlingly intimate pictures illustrate in poignant detail the challenges faced by a modest, tireless rural physician — and gradually reveal the inner workings and the outer trappings of what is clearly a uniquely rewarding life.”Country Doctor” was an instant classic when first published, establishing Smith as a master of the uniquely commanding young art form of the photo essay, and solidifying his stature as one of the most passionate and influential photojournalists of the 20th century. In 1979, the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund was founded to support those working in the profoundly humanistic style of photography to which Smith dedicated his life and his art.
Dr. Ernest Ceriani makes a house call on foot, Kremmling, Colo., 1948.
Ralph Pickering holds his 5-week-old baby while waiting to be Dr. Ceriani’s first patient of the day. Pickering, a horseback guide to tourists coming to see the majestic Rocky Mountains, traveled from an outlying ranch to reach the doctor’s office.
Dr. Ceriani sits at bedside of a patient as he assesses flu symptoms during a house call. When Smith began “Country Doctor,” he shot for a period of time with no film in his camera, to help Ceriani get used to his presence without wasting precious film.
In the backseat of a car, Dr. Ceriani administers a shot of morphine to a 60-year-old tourist from Chicago, seen here with her grandson, who was suffering from a mild heart disturbance.
Dr. Ceriani examines a feverish 4-year-old girl suffering from tonsillitis. Although most of his patients were children, Ceriani was initially inexperienced in pediatrics when he started his practice, and studied up on it whenever he had the chance.
Though he had no vacations and few days off, Dr. Ceriani did have use of a small hospital, which was equipped with an X-ray machine, an autoclave and an oxygen tent, among other medical necessities. Here, he explains an X-ray — he developed the film himself — to one of his rancher patients.
The doctor tapes a patient who broke some ribs after a horse rolled over him. “His income for covering a dozen fields is less than a city doctor makes by specializing in just one,” LIFE’s editors noted, “but Ceriani is compensated by the affection of his patients and neighbors, by the high place he has earned in his community and by the fact that he is his own boss. For him, this is enough.”
Dr. Ceriani uses a syringe to irrigate wax from an elderly man’s ear to improve his hearing.
Dr. Ceriani examines the stitches in the lacerated hand of a young patient.
Two friends transport Dr. Ceriani to Gore Canyon so he can enjoy a few hours of recreational fishing, a rare treat for the hard-working physician.
Dr. Ceriani fly-fishes on the Colorado River.
Thirty minutes into his fishing excursion, Dr. Ceriani is called to an emergency: A young girl has been kicked in the head by a horse and is badly injured.
The child’s worried parents look on as Dr. Ceriani, surrounded by nurses, examines their 2-year-old daughter.
Dr. Ceriani has stitched the girl’s wound to minimize scarring, but he must now find a way to tell the parents that her eye cannot be saved and they must take her a specialist in Denver to have it removed.
The doctor helps a rancher carry his son into the hospital. The inebriated young man dislocated his elbow when he was thrown from a bronco at a rodeo.
The injured elbow required a painful reset.
“Don’t tell my mother,” said the young man. Still under the effects of ether, he didn’t realize she’d been holding his hand during the procedure.
Dr. Ceriani checks the blood pressure of 85-year-old Thomas Mitchell, who came to the hospital with a gangrenous leg. Knowing that Mitchell might not be strong enough to endure the necessary amputation, Ceriani had been postponing surgery.
When Mitchell finally rallied, the doctor gently carried him from the basement ward up to the operating room of the hospital, which had no elevator.
Dr. Ceriani gives the 85-year-old man spinal anesthesia before amputating his gangrenous left leg.
Dr. Ceriani responds to a late-night call when an 82-year-old man suffers a heart attack at a boarding house. Town marshal Chancy Van Pelt and one of the man’s fellow tenants stand by.
Knowing the man who suffered the heart attack at the boarding house will not make it through the night, Dr. Ceriani calls for a priest from the kitchen.
Dr. Ceriani helps the town marshal carry the heart attack victim to the ambulance. There, the country doctor will see that his patient is as comfortable as possible, knowing there’s nothing he can do to save him.
The treeless ranching community of Kremmling, Colo., stands on a 7,000-ft. plateau beneath the towering Rocky Mountains.
Dr. Ceriani holds 11-month-old son Gary as his wife, Bernetha, steadies 3-year-old Phillip on a fence while watching a parade. Though they’d been married for four years at the time Smith was profiling the doctor, Mrs. Ceriani still struggled with the unpredictability of her husband’s schedule.
A fund-raising committee in Kremmling was able to raise $35,000 in 1947 to purchase the home of the town’s retiring physician and turn it into a 14-bed hospital. The funds were used to stock the tiny hospital with as much equipment — some of it war surplus — as could be afforded. Middle Park Hospital had only three wards that could accommodate 14 patients. With a new hospital in place, the town then put out a call for a new general practitioner — a call answered by Dr. Ceriani.
After finishing a surgery that lasted until 2 AM, Dr. Ceriani stands exhausted in the hospital kitchen with a cup of coffee and a cigarette. “The nurses,” LIFE noted, “constantly admonish him to relax and rest, but because they are well aware that he cannot, they keep a potful of fresh coffee simmering for him at all hours.”
Dr. Ernest Ceriani in the small Kremmling, Colo., hospital.
Doctor Ceriani checks 4-year-old Jimmy Free’s foot, cut when the boy stepped on broken glass.
Dr. Ceriani examines his handiwork after the partial amputation of a patient’s leg, Kremmling, Colorado, August 1948. The patient, Thomas Mitchell, was suffering from a gangrenous infection.
An operating room in Kremmling, Colo.
Dr. Ceriani with a patient.
Dr. Ernest Ceriani delivers a baby.
Maternity ward, Kremmling, Colo., 1948.
An incubator in Kremmling, Colo., 1948.
The contents of a country doctor’s bag, Kremmling, Colo., 1948.
Doctor Ceriani and town marshal Chancey Van Pelt carry a patient from a cabin in the hills near Kremmling, Colorado, 1948.
Dr. Ernest Ceriani on his way to a house call in foul weather, Kremmling, Colo., 1948.
(Photos by W. Eugene Smith for Life Magazine)