By Jeffrey S. Reznick
William D. Adams, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) recently honored the National Library of Medicine (NLM) with a visit to learn about our historical collections and exhibitions and to reaffirm the memorandum of understanding signed by the NEH and NLM in 2012 to collaborate on initiatives of common interest. Our current collaboration is in the works as NLM prepares to host an NEH-funded a workshop in April 2016, entitled Images and Texts in Medical History: An Introduction to Methods, Tools, and Data from the Digital Humanities, in cooperation with Virginia Tech, The Wellcome Library, and The Wellcome Trust. The workshop will provide historians and librarians with a deeper appreciation of innovative methods and data sources useful for analyzing images and texts in the field of medical history.
Since his confirmation by the U.S. Senate in July 2014, NEH Chairman Adams has led his agency in new and dynamic ways to provide broad public access to and engagement with the humanities. Earlier this year, he launched The Common Good: The Humanities in the Public Square, an initiative designed to demonstrate the critical role humanities scholarship can play in our public life. More recently, the NEH announced a new grant program, called Common Heritage, that will bring to light historical records and artifacts currently hidden in family attics and basements across the country and make them digitally available to the wider public and for posterity. Another new NEH grant opportunity, Humanities in the Public Square, will put humanities scholars in direct dialogue with the public through community discussions on contemporary issues in civic life. These follow other newly created NEH Common Good grant programs Humanities Open Book—a joint program with the Mellon Foundation to give second life to outstanding out-of-print books in the humanities by turning them into freely accessible e-books—and NEH Public Scholar grants, which encourage the publication of nonfiction books that apply serious humanities scholarship to subjects of general interest and appeal.
During his visit, Patricia Tuohy, head of the NLM’s Exhibition Program, led Chairman Adams on a tour of our current special display in the NLM History of Medicine Division reading room, Pictures of Nursing: The Zwerdling Postcard Collection, which presents a selection of historic postcards from NLM’s recently-acquired Zwerdling postcard collection. She also offered him a preview of a new NLM traveling banner exhibition Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature, to be launched this summer. Mary Shelley’s early nineteenth-century novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, written when she was a teenager, poses profound questions about individual and societal responsibility for other people. The exhibition explores how Frankenstein provides a framework for discussions of medical advances, which challenge our traditional understanding of what it means to be human. This traveling banner exhibition is adapted from the original show that toured successfully from 2002 to 2007 under management of the American Library Association, with funding from the NEH.
Michael North, head of NLM’s Rare Books and Early Manuscripts section, gave Chairman Adams a look at of some of the Library’s oldest and most scholarly significant collection items. Among them was a beautiful 13th-century manuscript copy of the Articella, a medieval text containing important ancient writings such as Hippocrates’s Aphorisms and Prognostics and Galen’s Ars Parva. Also included was NLM’s copy of the first edition of René Descartes’s Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences, printed in Leiden in 1637. Generally known as Discourse on the Method (Discours de la Méthode in the original French), this groundbreaking philosophical treatise laid the groundwork for scientific and mathematical enquiry, including the first introductory descriptions of the Cartesian coordinate system and the oft-quoted philosophical axiom, “I think, therefore I am” (“Je pense, donc je suis”).
I had the privilege offering Chairman Adams a view into our collections that coincides with the current centenary anniversary of World War I. We looked together at a unique set of wartime military hospital magazines filled with cartoons, jokes, poems, illustrations, and other material written by both wounded soldiers and military staff who came together through these publications to try to make sense of the Great War. These magazines served as “safety valves” to help relieve the stress experienced by frontline soldiers and their caregivers, distracting from bullet, shell, and bayonet wounds, influenza and other infectious diseases, gas exposure, gangrene, and shell shock.
Following Chairman Adams’s tour, he met with the NLM’s acting Director Betsy Humphreys and Joyce Backus, Associate Director for Library Operations. They discussed the common history of the NEH and the NLM in the era of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society, when, in 1965, the NEH was established, and, that same year, Congress passed legislation establishing Regional Medical Programs, which helped to pave the way to today’s coronary care units and advanced regional trauma centers. They also discussed the rich historical content of the NLM’s life sciences repository PubMed Central (PMC), which will become all the more valuable for humanities scholars thanks to the NLM’s recent agreement with the Wellcome Library to make thousands of complete back issues of historically-significant biomedical journals freely available online.
On leaving, Chairman Adams remarked, “The history of medicine is an ideal vehicle for exploring the intersection of the humanities and medicine and science, and the NLM has fantastic collections, exhibitions, and programs to help make these explorations happen. My visit was a real pleasure—thank you—and I look forward to growing our relationship with you.”
And we thank you, Chairman Adams. We were very happy to host you, and we look forward to next April, when we’ll host the NEH-funded workshop Images and Texts in Medical History, and to more opportunities to work together to embrace the future as stewards of the past.
The National Endowment for the Humanities is an executive-branch, independent grant-making agency of the U.S. federal government dedicated to supporting research, education, preservation, and public programs in the humanities and in those social sciences that use humanistic methods. NEH accomplishes this mission by providing grants for high-quality humanities projects to cultural institutions, such as museums, archives, libraries, colleges, universities, public television and radio stations, and to individual scholars.
Learn more about past collaborations between the NLM and the NEH, including:
Shared Horizons: Data, Biomedicine, and the Digital Humanities (April 2013)
An Epidemiology of Information: New Methods for Interpreting Disease and Data (October 2013)
And learn about “The Intersection of the Humanities and the Sciences,” from the May 2014 NEH Jefferson Lecture with Walter Isaacson, one of the preeminent biographers of our time.
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