Monday, August 03, 2015

How It Happened: A closer look at a surgeon's soliloquies

One of the many joys of research appointments is that we get to learn more about our collections and our famous names in OHSU history with every visit or request. Sometimes we even find unexpected pleasures, like a book combining poetry, riddles, and social commentary!

We recently hosted a research appointment for the materials of Dr. Adalbert Bettman, an alumnus of University of Oregon Medical School who became a well-regarded plastic surgeon. Dr. Bettman, who's been written about in the blog here and there, served as a clinical associate at UOMS and a surgeon at Shriner's Hospital for Children while maintaining a private practice. Our Dr. Bettman-related holdings run the gamut of archival documents, rare books, and artifacts, and include his papers, plaster casts of his reconstructive surgery successes, and a library donation of rare books from his personal collection.

In pulling together materials for our visiting researcher, I came across a book of his poetry in our Archival Publications Collection. It turns out that his 1931 book, "How It Happened," came to HC&A by way of former department head Sara Piasecki, who acquired the book at a Friends of Multnomah County Library sale. I was intrigued by this humanities-tinged side of the clinician, and delved a bit deeper into the book. I was not disappointed! 

 The accompanying insert identifies the book as a "satirical anthology" consists of 100 short poems describing "the courious warp and woof of society that parades in serio-comic manner across the physician's threshold." Dr. Bettman's preface advises the reader, "That the names / Heading these pages / Are assumed / Is immaterial; / The real names / May be had / By consulting / Any Doctor of Medicine." Each poem, titled with a representative name, describes a condition brought across the doctor's desk, often detailing some tell-tale symptoms and usually castigating the patient for inattention to doctor's advice or medical wisdom. After the preface, the book opens with a poem for the exasperated physician:

The poems are also laced with a heavy dose of early twentieth century morality, so the reader learns of the dangers of venereal diseases, abortion, and alcoholism alongside usual suspects like appendicitis. Being the 1930s, I suppose it's not entirely surprising that eugenics arguments make an appearance as well:

One thing that you learn when you work with a lot of historical medical materials is how enduring so many social issues are; many of our contemporary public health concerns (STDs, unplanned pregnancies, vaccinations) loomed large even fifty or a hundred years ago - certainly not the recent product of social change, as sometimes implied in media discussions of the issues.

I enjoy a riddle and a medical mystery as much as [read: more than] the next gal, so I'll leave it to you, dear readers, if you can recognize the ailments or situations described in the poems below: If you think you can identify one, leave a comment or send me an email ( with your diagnosis!

These two are a husband-and-wife combination:

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