Friday, December 14, 2007

History goes to the victor

It is an old adage that history belongs to the winners, and archives and libraries have long been aware that whole segments of societies, and whole societies for that matter, are underrepresented, misrepresented, or just plain not represented in the record of the past.

I was asked this morning an unusual question: "Do you have any uninteresting collections?" Since I personally find something of interest in all our collections, I was unsure how to answer. I said that, certainly, we have some collections from interesting people that are remarkably uninteresting in their contents (the personal papers that contain only reprints, the administrative records that have only meeting minutes with final decisions and no record of discussions), but that they were all interesting in their own way. The questioner rephrased: "Do you have any collections from nobodies?", meaning people who didn't go on to do much of anything. And the answer to that is yes, but not a lot.

Which begs the further question: what would you collect from a "nobody", if you could? If you wanted to show the culture of medicine from the grunt level (to put it bluntly), would personal papers be the best way to go? Or even a useful way to go? What sorts of documentation would illustrate the lives of the average physicians, or the bad physicians? Should archives concentrate on the Great Men, the men (and women) who recognize their own place in history and so collect, and deposit, written records? Are the papers of the victors the true representation of medical culture at a given point? Is there one medical culture in America, or are there many?

A glance at our collections hints at the multiplicity of cultures and communities within medicine, each of which can be remembered and reconstructed only through the study of what remains behind. History may go to the victor, whether egotist or packrat, but only if libraries and archives continue to collect and preserve collections both large and small.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Medical practice after World War II

In studying changes in medical culture and practice through time, we often find a wealth of interesting information in the records of medical societies. Societies, which both regulate and reflect the ethics and ideals of the local population, can often capture a prevailing mood in new initiatives, conference themes, or membership questionnaires. An example of the last of these from the Oregon State Medical Society Papers (Accession 1997-003) provides a snapshot of the changing landscape of medical practice in Oregon at the close of the Second World War.

Dated August 3-11, 1944, the questionnaire asked such questions as "Would you be able and willing to share space for a specified time, or stagger office hours, to accommodate a returning physician until he could find desirable space, as is planned in New York and some other cities?" and (for veterans) "Do you expect to precede your return to civilian practice with additional study or training other than a short refresher course?" (60% said yes to this)

One question echoed the concerns of returning vets and their families: "What do you anticipate will be the chief problems you will encounter in resuming civilian life?" The top two responses, nearly tied, were "rebuilding a practice" and "finances," while "readjustment from military to civilian medicine" received one vote and "socialized medicine" received six.

The questionnaire also took the pulse of the community on health insurance: "Realizing that the Oregon Physicians' Service is a professionally-sponsored experiment in providing a prepaid medical service (a) such as Oregon workers have come to expect, (b) that assists in forestalling the domination of medical practice by commercial medical service and insurance corporations or industrial interests, and (c) that meets the present nation-wide demand for an 'insurance' type of medical care, do you favor: A. continuing the organization, and B. extending the service to families?" (88% of the members were in favor of A, but only 52% were in favor of B).

The questionnaire folder also contains a typed summary of "comments [which] were received which have no bearing on any of the questions asked but which may be of interest." Included here is a demand that medical meetings have better presentations:
Tabloid papers should be demanded and required by those in charge of programs. Short, snappy, thought-provoking papers are what I would like to see adopted. I think the membership can stand the shock of it.
Ah, it is ever thus!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Birth of an institution

The birth of the University of Oregon Medical School one hundred and twenty years ago was captured in paper documents, both handwritten and typescript, that have come down through the ages and into our collections.

The Harry J. Sears Papers (Accession 2005-005), donated by Sears' son David in 2005, contains a manuscript draft version of the petition sent to the Board of Regents in June of 1887. The draft is written on letterhead from the Office of the Board of Health where C.H. Wheeler was presiding Health Officer, and Wheeler's name appears in the list of petitioners. A penciled notation at the top of the first sheet, however, indicates that this particular version was a "draft, United States District by Judge Matthew P. Deady." Deady was, at that time, president of the Board of Regents; subsequent to the establishment of the University of Oregon Medical School, he was immediately named emeritus professor of medical jurisprudence. While that might trigger a conflict of interest inquiry these days, it seemed business as usual back in 1887.

The University of Oregon Medical School Faculty Minutes (Accession 1999-003), by contrast, contains a typewritten version of the petition appended to the beginning of the volume containing minutes from the period 1921 to 1943. You have wonder why this was included at that point: was the original petition missing? Were original papers destroyed accidentally? Had some challenge to the school's authority been received? Had enough time elapsed that human memory of the original incorporation was no longer sufficient (or trustworthy)? In any case, the typed petition, while official-looking, definitely lacks charm. The language itself seems more alive in the manuscript ("and we would ever pray --"), and we're gratified that this draft, in all its contingency, now sits beside its formal likeness.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Public health in Jackson County

Just about three months ago, I posted information on our Public Health Survey Records (Accession 2004-025), a collection of reports about public health services and statistics from cities and counties throughout the Pacific Northwest. Yesterday, in the course of shifting materials in the PNW Archives Collection to make room for new acquisitions, I came across an orphan from that same collection: Thelma Perozzi's Report of health conditions in Jackson County, Oregon, from 1933.

Organized in much the same way as the other surveys, Perozzi's report includes a brief history of Jackson County, an outline of the organization and administration of the local health department, vital statistics of the county population, and information on sanitation and community health services in the locality. Like the other reports, Perozzi's is illustrated with original photographs and supplemented with examples of blank forms. In the images shown here, we see the "interior of a dental room" in Ashland, OR (Figure 2) and the "community health house" in Berrydale, OR, a lumbering community near Medford (Figure 3).

Perozzi's Foreword is refreshingly honest: "The writer intends that this report be merely personal observations coupled with data, statistical and otherwise, and not a complete survey of all the health problems of Jackson County. The material which is not original can be detected easily, and the remaining charts and graphs have been made by the writer." Talk about an easy out for maintaining a lengthy list of notes and citations!

Monday, December 10, 2007

New web resources: lecture and exhibits

Announcing the availability of a few new links to online resources from Historical Collections & Archives:

The streaming video of the last History of Medicine Society Lecture is now available. In this presentation, Dr. Brion Benninger discusses the history of cranial nerve description and classification, and his own groundbreaking work in this area. Check our Lectures web page for information about the next lecture, coming up on January 18.

Many people are already aware of our popular Exhibits web site, which includes information about the current exhibit as well as exhibits we have mounted in the past. But now, there is another way to find information about some of our online exhibits: the directory of Library and Archival Exhibitions on the Web, available from the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, has included listings for several of our web exhibits. Take a look, and check out the many wonderful exhibits being mounted on the web by our colleagues at libraries and archives across the nation and around the world. Enjoy!