The Great Gatsby Questions and Answers
by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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In The Great Gatsby, what were Dr. T. J. Eckleburg’s potential earnings prior to 1920?

In The Great Gatsby, it is possible that Dr. T. J. Eckelburg earned in the neighborhood of $800 a year prior to 1920. This would be slightly above the earnings of an average American at the time. However, given the economic devastation of the Valley of Ashes, it seems that the doctor may have fallen on hard times.

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In The Great Gatsby, Doctor T. J. Eckelburg is the disembodied, bespectacled eyes on a billboard overlooking the Valley of Ashes. Judging by the description of the fading paint and overall poor state of the advertisement, we can assume that Doctor Eckelburg is no longer in business. That means that he was likely actively practicing in the 1910s.

As an oculist in the early twentieth century, we can make some educated guesses as to what Dr. Eckelburg may have earned. An oculist, referred to today more commonly as an ophthalmologist or optometrist, is a profession that requires extensive training. As it is today, it would likely have been a decently paid job prior to 1920. I cannot find any specific income information for oculists. However, we can assume that it would have been similar to what most other physicians made. This was a time before commercial health insurance. Patients would pay their physicians a modest fee for their services. Standards were not regulated with much consistency and quality of service between doctors varied greatly.

Let's assume that Dr. Eckelburg was an average physician. There are actually scant records for what a physician at the time could earn. It would vary widely depending on where they were and how many patients they saw. In 1918, congressional testimony from a hearing concerning pay for employees in the District of Columbia (linked below) suggests that doctors at the time earned about $800 a year. In 1919, the average American salary was about $750 a year according to the Department of Commerce. Given this, we might assume that Dr. Eckelburg earned an average or slightly above average salary. Even if that was so, it does not seem to be enough to have kept him in business by the time of the events of The Great Gatsby.