Friday, August 24, 2007

Eureka moment

I love it when little pieces of loose information all flow together suddenly and serendipitously to create that perfect moment in time: aha! And finally, it all falls into place and a "lost" document is restored to its rightful location in the information universe. Such a confluence of data happened just today.

We received a query from the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum about a photo in their collections, which just happens to be a copy of one we have here in the Historical Image Collection. The Dittrick has put together a fantastic little online exhibit, "Haunting Images: Photography, Dissection, and Medical Students," showcasing some of their images of what you might call "fun with cadavers," a popular turn-of-the-century pastime for medical students. In the course of researching their photos, they came across the one we also have, and wondered if we could complete the names of the men shown.

Well, as it turns out, they already had a lot more information included on their copy of the image than we had--or, certainly less misleading information. Ours, dated 1927, has last names of four of the men, but one name is clearly uncertain. This, coupled with the date, led us down the garden path to our own door: we assumed that 1927 was an accurate dating, and then looked for names of men associated with the school in the 1920s who had the same or similar last names.

The Dittrick copy, however, is clearly dated 1887. This was a major new piece of information, which allowed us to make the ultimate paradigm shift: maybe this wasn't the University of Oregon Medical School, maybe it was the Willamette University Medical Department!! Oh, Willamette, with whom we had such a love-hate-love relationship. We broke from her in 1887, merged with her in 1913, and the history of the schools during that period remains sketchy at best--primarily because many of the records appear to have been lost somewhere along the road.

Paradigm shifted, we can now see our way to the facts in this case: the gentlemen shown are all grads of Willamette's medical school class of 1887, so this must be the dissection room or anatomy lab at the Portland campus of WUMD in 1887. We can identify the men correctly as: Otis D. Butler, John J. Sellwood, Herbert W. Cardwell, Curtis Holcomb, and Frank S. Wright.

I blame OD Butler for part of this confusion: as he was wrapping up his studies at Willamette, he was working as demonstrator of anatomy at the just-formed University of Oregon Medical School. He must have been sympathetic to the cadre of men who broke ranks with the Willamette faculty to establish their own school, but maybe he was warned that his credits would not transfer. In any case, pieces of the puzzle are now back together, and we can include this information with our copy of the photo for future researchers.

Another small triumph! Time for a well-deserved weekend...

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