Thursday, August 17, 2017

"The Marquam Hill Billy"

by Rachel Fellman

scan by the author
No plan survives the enemy, and no departmental in-joke survives eighty years in a file folder. I drew that second conclusion while reading through the three surviving issues of The Marquam Hill Billy, a University of Oregon Medical School employee newsletter from (most likely) 1937. (Volume and issue numbers are listed with almost sarcastic precision, but there are no dates on the issues).

The newsletter takes a mocking tone, and two of its opening editorials take the time to chide annoyed readers: "No fair getting your feelings hurt"; "our policy is not to hurt any feelings, so it's  'no fair gettin' mad.'" It's hard to imagine any of the readership actually gettin' mad, though. The jokes at staff expense are very mild, and composed mainly of self-deprecating anecdotes and things that friends might tell their friends. (One staffer mistakes shaving cream for toothpaste; another is briefly caught up in a riptide; a third is in love.) There are marriage and baby announcements, and a certain amount of medical wordplay ("the weather was a little diluted," and the Hill Billy itself is "issued P.R.N.").

It's in the patient anecdotes that the Hill Billy takes the gloves off. A young patient's mother pronounces "pneumonia" as "peanut ammonia"; another child gets a bee sting on his tongue while running down the hill to tell his mother their house was on fire. In general, the portrayal of patients is very negative: they're portrayed as ill-informed and uneducated, and generally don't know what's what. Some of them are black, which is held to be inherently funny, and racist remarks abound.

Most of the time, I find that old publications read a lot like new ones. The Crohn's newsletters are recognizable precursors of the modern Internet, with a mixture of information and friendly chatter. And an alumni magazine is an alumni magazine whether you meet it in 1957 or 2017. Gallows humor is universal to caring professions, as is private frustration with patients and co-workers. But it's hard to imagine anything like The Marquam Hill Billy existing today. The idea of how a professional speaks and acts has just changed too much, and there's a much stronger boundary between our personal and working lives. Archivists may be annoyed by HIPAA more or less all the time, but at least it stops medical discourse from devolving into "poor people say the darnedest things." (I'll own, though, that "don't get mad at the nasty remark I'm about to make" remains a universal constant.)

The Marquam Hill Billy can be found in the University News and Publications Print Collection, 2004-003.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Beyond the Pickering Debacle

by Rachel Fellman

Dr. Donald Pickering's lab notebooks are easy to date for two reasons. First, he served at the University of Oregon Medical School for only five years -- as a professor of pediatrics, and then as the first director of the Oregon Regional (now National) Primate Research Center. His speedy departure from the latter post was still referred to decades later as "the Pickering Debacle."

Photo by author
The second reason, though, is that he was a tidy man who obviously treasured his office supplies. The first page of each hardcover notebook is neatly labeled with the subject and year, with a first-day-of-school enthusiasm that's been preserved intact through the early years of the doctor's professional life. Their internal organization is similarly scholarly. Photographs are pasted in and neatly labeled, and introductory matter is written in full sentences without corrections. I like to think that Dr. Pickering, who died in 2006, would have appreciated knowing that we've removed the rusted paperclips from his work and fitted it precisely into a 2.5-inch acid-free box.

His tenure here was unhappy, as the word "debacle" tends to suggest. The reason why is less obvious. The relevant oral histories are a Rashomon-like collection of stories, often marked by anxiety about how much detail to discuss, even thirty years later. To Dr. Robert Campbell, the issue was a personality conflict -- a question of money and control -- between Dr. Pickering and the Dean of the medical school, Dr. David W. E. Baird. This blossomed into an open argument in the local press, with the Dean's allies attacking Pickering's personality and mental health. Joseph A. Adams, former head of public relations, remembers Pickering as the aggressor in the matter, a man who got into legal trouble that the dean had to answer for, and whose resignation was a bluff which the Dean cannily called. Dr. Peter Bentley simply says that Pickering was an abrasive manager who was quickly fired. Dr. Richard Jones recalls that the conflict played out over a computer -- a significant purchase in 1963 -- which Dr. Pickering bought without authorization using NIH funds. He speaks warmly of Dr. Pickering's intellectual curiosity, ambition, and creativity, and also of his unapologetic ego. Of all of these accounts, Dr, Jones's appears to be the most objective, although that doesn't mean it's the most correct.

It's always an interesting challenge to delve into institutional history without simply digging up old dirt. I was tempted to stop with the irresistible phrase "the Pickering Debacle," but of course a little research revealed a much more complicated and suggestive story about a rapidly growing institution whose ambitious staff tended to burn hot. It all has very little to do with the fetal development of rhesus macaques, but somehow, in between all the drama, Dr. Pickering found the time to conduct and collect his research into his two elegant notebooks.