Friday, February 22, 2008

History of dentistry presentation now online

A great new resource on the history of dentistry has just been added to the OHSU Digital Resources Library: an audiovisual tour of dentistry from ancient times to the present day, led by Dr. J. Henry Clarke, D.M.D., emeritus professor in the OHSU School of Dentistry.

The hook: When colleague Lee Cantwell asked Clarke why he wanted to teach the dental history course, Clarke responded "why not?" Lee answered: "The history of medicine is a noble tradition, but ours is a humiliation." Clarke: "Lee, you need to come to my course, because you are absolutely wrong."

Technical notes: You'll need a media player that can handle mpeg files. Be aware that the mpeg file is rather large (372 Mb) and may take some time to download. The video runtime is 36:54.

Thursday, February 21, 2008


Yesterday, we took a short field trip across the Columbia River to the Ft. Vancouver National Historic Site and the Clark County Historical Museum to recover some long-loaned items properly belonging to our archives and Medical Museum Collection.

From Ft. Vancouver, we retrieved the original medical license of Dr. Forbes Barclay (signed by Royal Society member Dr. Astley Cooper, among others), a mortar and pestle, and a pill-making machine. In addition, we got a great inside look at the operations of the Cultural Resources Division from Curator Tessa Langford. Archaeological excavations at the site are still uncovering about 30,000 objects per year! (And we thought we had a backlog...)

Next, it was up the street to the Clark County Historical Museum, housed in a charming 1909 Carnegie Library that was the first building in Vancouver to have electricity. There, we picked up a very heavy scrapbook, created by the citizens of Woodland, WA, for Dr. Carl J. Hoffmann (1882-1970) upon his retirement from practice there. The book is bound in tooled leather, illustrated with a portrait of Hoffmann (see image); the interior pages contain photographs, letters, cards, and reminiscences about the good doctor and his time in Woodland. Equally a celebration of the man and the town, it is a wonderful example of the way in which rural physicians often become indispensable to their communities.

All of these items came back to us after 32 years in excellent condition. They had been well-cared for, used, and enjoyed by the staff of the respective institutions. Loaned in good faith, one set with a written agreement and the other with a handshake, they remained in good hands as staff changed around them, paperwork was lost, and old commitments were forgotten. After tracking down clues and making a few contacts, we rediscovered them and brought them back to their home institution.

Why repatriate materials that have been "missing" so long? The objects were all equally appropriate for the collections of those other repositories, they were seeing some use (if only by staff). But they were not at OHSU, not in Historical Collections & Archives here, the home selected by the donors of the items so many years ago. It was back in 1946 that Mrs. J. Miles and Miss Ciss B. Pratt chose the University of Oregon Medical School as the repository for Barclay's items. Hoffmann's daughter, Helen Moore, brought her father's community-made scrapbook to us in 1975 and handed it over to then Librarian Margaret Hughes, along with some other items, because Hoffmann had graduated from UOMS, and she thought it most fitting that the medical school archives be tasked with the preservation of his memory.

Once a donation is accepted, we think it important to honor the wishes of the donor. If we cannot honor those wishes, we should not accept the donation, no matter how spectacular. Once, years ago, OHSU was offered the papers of Dr. William K. Livingston, former chair of surgery and pioneer in pain management. The collection was large, impressive, and important. Unfortunately, the staffing situation at that time made it unlikely that the collection would be processed in a timely manner, thus rendering it essentially inaccessible to researchers. The decision was made, rightly I think, to refer the donor to UCLA, where the material would be properly cared for and where it would complement other collections pertaining to palliative care.

Do we wish, now, that we had that collection? Oh, you betcha. A lot. Do we regret the decision? No. Archival materials are unique and can only be housed in one repository. It should be one that can care for materials, make them accessible to researchers, and commit to their long-term preservation. And we should honor the donors of these materials, without whom our cupboards would be quite bare.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

History as a medical tool

The February 16, 2008, issue of The Lancet contains an article by Howard I. Kushner on "History as a medical tool," in which the author uses two real life examples to illustrate the value of history as a clinical tool.

In the clinical setting, the word "history" is most often used to refer to the patient's own health history; "Medical History Taking" is the official medical subject heading for the process of obtaining information from the patient in order to formulate a diagnosis. Kushner advocates a different perspective, investigating the history of a disease to better understand its causes and symptoms.

Using the examples of Tourette's syndrome and Kawasaki's disease, Kushner shows how knowledge about the development of the definition of a syndrome or disease can greatly influence clinicians' understanding of the nature of that disease and hence their diagnosis of the disease in patients displaying some or all of the hallmark signs. Re-examination of case studies, written descriptions, and theories of disease epidemiology can help doctors to question old assumptions and may lead to new pathways for research. Or, in Kushner's formulation: "historical interrogations of syndrome construction can elicit useful issues for the development of research hypotheses and novel approaches to medical conundrums."

So get out there and start interrogating!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Celebrating the Presidents

In honor of Presidents' Day just passed, and the birthdays of Lincoln (2/12) and Washington (2/22) it is thought to honor, we offer this tidbit from the archives. Yes, that's Ronald Reagan signing the library guest register during his 1961 trip to the University of Oregon Medical School (when he was still nominally a Democrat).

Ah, the glamorous life of the librarian! (Although, you'll notice that Librarian Bertha Hallam didn't make it in to this shot; that's Dean David Baird on the left.)