As Attending Physician to Congress, George Calver received a special perk: Every Representative who visited him gave the doctor a signed photograph. Calver amassed a collection of congressional headshots inscribed with personal notes to him. These signed photos, now in the House Collection, reveal relationships and personalities in Congress.
Calver came to Washington at a moment when poor health plagued Congress. In 1928, after a spate of congressional illness and deaths from heart disease, the House requested that the U.S. Navy provide a medical officer to care for Members. The Navy assigned Dr. Calver, a cardiac specialist, to the Hill. Calver had served as a medical officer aboard the U.S.S. Supply during World War I.
The doctor ordered his patients to exercise, relax, and get away from stress. His congressional patients weren’t used to being ordered around, but they took the doctor seriously. Calver’s care led to his appointment as the Attending Physician of the Senate as well as the House, and a promotion to the rank of rear admiral. During his 38 years of service, Calver received $1,500 annually from Congress and benefits that included a car and chauffeur, in addition to his naval salary. The attending physician provided good medical care to all Representatives and Senators, and he made no distinction “between a Republican bellyache and a Democratic bellyache.”
When he healed politicians, Calver asked for a signed picture. “Each member of Congress treated by Dr. Calver is expected to pay with an autographed picture of himself,” the New York Times reported. By his account, his office examined about 50,000 cases per year—and then overflowed with photo prints. While some Members sincerely praised the doctor’s service, others infused their inscriptions with humor. Autographed letters and signed photos appeal to collectors, like Dr. Calver, because they provide an intimate look into the thoughts and words of famous people.
Many of the autographed photos read like testimonials. Representative Thomas Blanton proclaimed Calver “a damn good Scout,” and Lex Green called him “the best Dr. in DC.” Justin Leroy Johnson swore that Calver’s “guidance kept me in perfect health during my 14 years in Congress.” Walt Horan’s exclamatory inscription testified to the good work and persistence of the physician: “Since 1928 a watch-dog on the lives of members of the Congress. I can personally adjudge that members have lived longer and more effectively because of him! No greater service to the legislative branch exists!”
As the physician, “I’m the only man they can’t talk back to on Capitol Hill,” Calver grinned. Although Members didn’t talk back to the doctor, they wrote back to him—with a smirk. “Best wishes to a great guardian of some careless congressmen,” wrote Francis Case. Several Members poked fun at the doctor’s instructions. Joseph Byrns, Jr., signed his photo “To Dr. Calver, who gives us all orders.” But the most sarcastic was Frank Bowman: “To Dr. Geo. W. Calver, a commander in the U.S. Navy and commander-in-chief of the U.S. Congress, who regulates the air we breathe, supervises the food we eat and otherwise interferes with our constitutional rights of personal freedom,— with regards of a friend.”
Calver took great pride in his collection. In 1939, he got a new snapshot of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Vice President John Nance Garner laughing together. Their banter spread from the image to their signatures. First, Garner scribbled, “To Doc Calver—for making me try to behave.” In response, Roosevelt wrote: “To Doc Calver—Keep on trying.” Holding up this trophy, the doctor smiled like a new father. The care he provided to Members and the respect he received from them came across in his autograph collection. Dr. Calver’s autographed photos show his important role serving Congress, from prescription to inscription.
Sources: The New York Times, January 29, 1939 and October 12, 1966; The Washington Post, February 28, 1972; Charles Hamilton, The Book of Autographs (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978).Follow @USHouseHistory