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In 1905, a Boston-based physician named Richard Cabot decided that medicine could do more to meet the social needs of patients.

With his own money, he hired a nurse, Garnet Pelton, who began to see patients in his clinic. Not long after, a social worker named Ida Cannon joined. The goal was to improve patients’ health by addressing social needs: “hygiene teaching,” “infant feeding,” “help for patients needing work” and “assistance to patients needing treatment after discharge.” They started, for example, a lunch counter at the clinic where hungry patients could enjoy milk and crackers, for five cents, while waiting to see a doctor. Soon, a committee of physicians, nurses, social workers and volunteers was formed to oversee the hospital’s “nonmedical” department, which provided various social supports.