Friday, April 03, 2009

Unmediated access: just a canard, or the worst thing since unsliced bread?

Sometimes of a Friday morning, with too much caffeine or not enough, my hackles become unusually sensitive to stimuli. This morning, it was the word "unmediated", followed by its new friend "access", both applied as a phrase describing archival offerings on the web, that set me off on a little rant. In a nutshell, it came down to this: is "unmediated access" just a highfalutin' oxymoron, or is it really the future bane of archival patrons everywhere?

If by "unmediated" we mean "not communicated or transformed by an intervening agency" (Merriam-Webster's current definition), then no access to materials in archival repositories is truly unmediated. If it's on the web, archival staff scanned it. Heck, if it's in the repository in the first place and not just in a pile on the floor somewhere in storage, it has been touched by archival staff (after, let us also note, being preserved by someone who thought it worth saving and turning over to a repository in the first place. But I belabor the point. Apologies.)

If by "unmediated" we mean that the reader coming to it on the web will be unhindered by any of the machinery of the archival repository, then I think it may be the worst thing I can think of. (Hopefully, this won't turn into an SNL-like satire on Orwell's 1984, wherein I'll find myself consigned to some hell constantly confronted with exactly what I most fear.)

In a world of unmediated archival materials, every reader coming to any document will find the document alone. Even groups of records, where this letter over here may fall in filing order behind that report, will appear alone. What motive force brought these items together? Why are these seemingly disparate topics all found in this collection? What era, what milieu, what context shaped this grouping and impinged on its creation and retention?

Without the context that can be--and to date has routinely been--added to those archival materials by the knowledgeable men and women who maintain them (I won't say "process and describe" since these are being made synonymous with a Luddite mindset), each researcher coming to the materials must create the context de novo. Can you imagine the snail's pace at which future historical analysis will progress if each writer is required to conduct research on every document to ascertain its true context before moving on to a consideration of its importance to any given thesis? Good heavens, it would be like removing every secondary source from the library and requiring people to scratch out those texts in outline before moving on to their tertiary analyses!

In much the same way that MPLP shifts the burden of processing from processing archivists to reference staff, "unmediated" digitization projects shift the burden of contextualization to readers. As a sometime researcher myself, I protest! I know that staff at any given repository know a lot more about a collection than I do coming to it cold; why must that information be denied me? Unbiased, always. But unmediated? I hope it never comes to that.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Dr. Grossman Goes to Washington: "Thank you again for inviting me"

As we have mentioned a few times previously, Dr. Charles Grossman, MD, has slowly been depositing some of his personal papers here in Historical Collections & Archives, usually a folder at a time, hand-carried on his way from Tuesday morning Medicine Grand Rounds to his car.

Recently, he brought us a small packet of correspondence, the unifying theme of which seems to be political figures. Included is a copy of a letter Grossman wrote to Lawrence F. O'Brien, Special Assistant to the President, dated August 11, 1965. In it, Grossman asks O'Brien to thank President Johnson for inviting him to attend a bill signing at the NIH. But, being Charles Grossman, he also felt compelled to offer a few tips on how the White House might improve such events for the participants:
In view of some of the comments I overheard while there I have wondered about passing them on to you or just forgetting them. You did collect some important medical people for the occasion, including many medical school Deans, yet there was no real integration of them into the program. They were invited up on to the platform into line with the Diplomats, and after standing in line conspicuously for ten minutes, they were summarily dismissed. The few I had a chance to talk with were not very happy about having made the effort to come. If only a few minutes had been taken by the President, or by Secretary Celebrezze, or Dr. Terry or even Dr. Shannon to relate to the group of doctors, I think the net result would have been far superior in terms of public relations.

Many of these medical Deans are Republicans and may not want to think kindly of a Democratic administration even though they and their institutions have the most to gain from the Health Research Facilities Amendments. Perhaps if the President were to send them brief notes thanking them for participating, it might help.
No response from O'Brien is included in the folder.

When he dropped this off, Dr. Grossman did tell us an anecdote about that same trip to the White House: Oregon Senator Wayne Morse, with whom Grossman was on close terms, lent Grossman his car to visit the NIH again the next day. Being a doctor, Grossman felt no compunction about walking right into the building and beginning an unguided tour. After a few minutes of looking around, he was headed back down to the first floor when he saw three men coming towards him: President Johnson and two others. Grossman, being Grossman, stuck out his hand and introduced himself, noting that he had come on the President's own invitation.

And that's when the two other gentleman picked Grossman up under the arms and carried him to the elevator, sending him down to the building exit. Grossman told us: "But I shook his hand! They were all bloody! Not literally, of course, but with the blood of the war!" Did you mention that part of it to Johnson, I asked? "No," said Grossman, "I didn't think that would be polite."

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Technic Lost, Technic Regained: a view, an update

In what can only be described as spooky action at a distance, a physician alerted me to the March 25 installment of "JAMA 100 years ago", a regular feature of the Journal of the American Medical Association. (subscription required)

In this issue, a short piece from 1909 is reprinted for the amusement and/or edification (it's never clear to me which the editors are shooting for) of modern readers. The piece is entitled "Medical history and non-medical writers." While my correspondent intended to call out to me the use of a quote from Plato's Charmides, what really caught my eye was the final sentence.
Medical science, like other sciences, has grown too self-conscious and too careful of her own reputation ever again to leave to the chance layman the task of recording methods and technic.
Wha?? Weren't we just talking about lost technic? To be fair, the lost technic we were seeking was buried by history, not necessarily left "to the chance layman" (although, I find it pretty ironic that this chance layman was the one put on the hunt to ferret it back out).

And for the curious: the technic we've been tracking for the past several days has been the procedure (or procedures, as it turns out) for removing the adrenal medulla from higher lab animals and humans while leaving the adrenal cortex intact. The most complete description we've found to date for the procedure in humans is from David H. Boggild's 1948 article "cases of affection of the vascular system treated by bilateral suprarenal medullectomy" (Acta Chir Scand. 1948 Feb 28;96(4):317-22), where I was surprised to find it being used as a treatment for Raynaud's Disease. Funny what you learn on the way to finding The Answer....

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Women physicians and the cultures of medicine

I finally had a chance to look at one of our most recent history of medicine book acquisitions, Women physicians and the cultures of medicine, edited by Ellen S. More, Elizabeth Fee, and Manon Parry (Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

The book is the printed distillation of works originally presented at a symposium, Women Physicians, Women's Politics, Women's Health: Emerging Narratives, hosted by the National Library of Medicine in 2005. The symposium was organized in conjunction with the NLM exhibition, Changing the Face of Medicine: Celebrating America's Women Physicians, which visited Portland in summer 2008 (and about which I'm sure some of you may be a bit tired of hearing!).

Happily for local history buffs, one chapter treats of our heroine Esther Pohl Lovejoy, MD and her colleague Ruth A. Parmalee, MD, both eyewitnesses to the tragic conflicts in Greece and Turkey in the 1910s and 1920s . In "Ruth A. Parmelee, Esther P. Lovejoy, and the discourse of motherhood in Asia Minor and Greece in the early twentieth century", Virginia A. Metaxas compares and contrasts the two women's responses to the crises and the language and imagery they used in their efforts to mobilize support for refugees. Noting that the people of Greece and Asia Minor were seen as "other" by Western audiences, Metaxas asserts that "the American public responded to crisis after crisis by supporting financial aid and relief personnel ... in part because of the way American medical women framed the story." Her thesis, that women physicians "shaped a narrative of motherhood" to "justify their presence as helpers in sometimes horrific situations" is bolstered by illustrations from not only medical discourse, but also Christian missionary and secular humanistic discourse. The interesting, but short piece left me wanting to know more--the hallmark of a good paper.

The book offers a lot more to readers interested in women in medicine. Check out the contents list below, and then check out the book at your local library...

Table of contents:
  1. Mary Putnam Jacobi and the nineteenth-century politics of women's health research / Carla Bittel
  2. Maternity and the female body in the writings of Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, 1829-1902 / Arleen Marcia Tuchman
  3. Female patient agency and the 1892 trial of Dr. Mary Dixon Jones in late nineteenth-century Brooklyn / Regina Morantz-Sanchez
  4. A Chinese woman doctor in progressive era Chicago / Judy Tzu-Chun Wu
  5. Professionalism versus sexuality in the career of Dr. Mary Calderone, 1904-1998 / Ellen S. More
  6. The legacy of masculine codes of honor and the admission of women to the medical profession in the nineteenth century / Robert A. Nye
  7. Women physicians and the twentieth-century women's health movement in the United States / Sandra Morgen
  8. Narrative forms in Our bodies, ourselves / Susan Wells
  9. Feminists fight the culture of exclusion in medical education, 1970-1990 / Naomi Rogers
  10. Women physicians and medical sects in nineteenth-century Chicago / Eve Fine
  11. Ruth A. Parmelee, Esther P. Lovejoy, and the discourse of motherhood in Asia Minor and Greece in the early twentieth century / Virginia A. Metaxas
  12. Women physicians and a new agenda for college health, 1920-1970 / Heather Munro Prescott

Monday, March 30, 2009

Frederick Roscoe Bowersox, d. 1969

While on the hunt for other information, I found myself looking through the Subject File on the old Willamette University Medical Department. A random assortment of materials are collected there, including a handwritten list of what appears to be an equipment inventory, dated 1913; a list of alumni from 1867-1913; a photocopy of the introductory address from 1867; and a reminiscence of the "old Medical School years" by Class of 1900 alumnus Dr. Frederick Roscoe Bowersox.

The interview of Bowersox, published in the Willamette Alumnus in Spring, 1963, tells the reader as much--or more--about Bowersox than about Willamette and its short-lived medical school. Bowersox was the very model of the turn-of-the-century physician: committed to his community, concerned about the commonweal, cantankerous caretaker of chipmunks (seriously: see the cage behind him in this photo of his living room?)

Bowersox, born about 1878, completed his premedical courses and his medical degree at Willamette and did his clinical coursework (in a precursor to today's internship) at Salem's General Hospital. Venturing out into the Oregon territory, he set up practice in Glendale and Kirby, caring for gold miners, ranchers, and other members of the small Rogue River communities. Describing his early practice, Bowersox recalled:
And I have set many a broken leg in a mine shaft. We had no x-rays. When we had to reduce a fracture, we'd just feel around, find the bone ends, and join them the best we could. I often wonder what doctors today would do if they suddenly were forced to work under the conditions that we worked under.
In 1904, Bowersox relocated to Ashland where he practiced for four years before suffering a nervous breakdown. In 1909, he moved to Monmouth and opened the Perkins Pharmacy. It wasn't until the flu pandemic of 1918 hit his adopted home that the doctor considered reentering medical practice: after Monmouth's only practitioner, J.O. Mathis, was called to service in the Army, the nearest physician for the town's residents was O.D. Butler in Independence. Bowersox initially stepped in to help cope with the pandemic--and remained in active practice in Monmouth for the next forty years.

While taking care of the physical health of his neighbors, Bowersox turned to politics, serving as mayor of Monmouth for several terms. He was also instrumental in forming the Monmouth Public Utilities District and securing Bonneville power for the community.

An avid outdoorsman, camper and hunter, Frederick R. Bowersox died in Feburary 1969 at the age of 91.