Dr. Sanders Marble spoke today at the National Library of Medicine on “Gathering and Spreading Knowledge: Publications and the Army Medical Library around World War I.” Dr. Marble is Senior Historian U.S. Army Office of Medical History. Circulating Now interviewed him about his work.
Circulating Now: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like?
Sanders Marble: I grew up in a suburb outside Richmond Virginia, well aware that my family had landed 100 miles and 350 years earlier at Jamestown. I’m not sure that led me to be a historian, but it didn’t hurt. As a government historian, I tell the history of the piece of the government I work for, the Army Medical Department. That’s different than most historians; for instance, I don’t teach (although there certainly are teaching historians in the military), and a lot of our military audience is not necessarily interested in history. It’s still important to teach them a bit, but doing so needs different tools and venues—for instance, we produce a history newsletter with short pieces to both educate and hopefully pique interest, we coordinate the Army Medical Command’s involvement with the Vietnam War Commemoration, and we administer the program to memorialize facilities for distinguished individuals. We also have a museum as a resource to get attention and encourage awareness of history to folks who go through. The typical workday is juggling various things—my boss gives me a lot of latitude as long as the end products are about the history of the Army Medical Department.
CN: The WWI centennial is spurring a wide range of scholarship on this period, what sparked your interest in the Army Medical Library’s role?
SM: I was writing a book for the centennial, and realized the Army Medical Library’s role changed, much as the Army Medical Museum’s role did. I didn’t turn up anything that explained that, and curiosity got me going.
CN: Would you tell us about the work you presented in your lecture, “Gathering and Spreading Knowledge: Publications and the Army Medical Library around World War I?”
SM: Before WWI, Surgeon General William Gorgas had a limited number of routes through which he could push information to his doctors. Several of those routes ran through the Army Medical Library, but during WWI the department used almost every other route, and outside organizations volunteered their resources. I looked at why the status quo was inadequate, analyzed what method(s) was used to reach different audiences, and also probed what the return to peacetime was like. For instance, the Index Medicus was a great tool to organize medical knowledge, but took a couple of years to get the material from 1914 organized and then getting it to the people who needed it was subject to the vagaries of the mail. It was interesting thinking about not just getting the right information together, but how it would be distributed to be useful.
CN: In researching this subject, were you drawn to any particular individual’s story?
SM: Military history often involves the guy at the top—they’re typically the ones with authority, and responsibility—but Surgeon General Gorgas seemed remarkably detached from this very small part of his department. I did get some interesting letters from the NLM’s collection about its librarians, but there wasn’t really any one person who stood out. Perhaps as a historian of an organization I’m prone to see organization-level questions rather than individual-level ones, or perhaps the nature of military staffs (where decisions generally move around for concurrence before moving up for approval) squeezed out some personalities.
CN: How did you originally become interested in the History of Medicine? What inspires you in your work?
SM: In 2003 I needed a job. I’d never paid attention to medical history, and said so in my interview—with the admonishment that I should be fired if I did not start learning. I came to realize the professional challenges involved in practicing good medicine in an organization for which medicine is not a central task, both for individual practitioners and for an organization. As a history nerd, I like the professional challenge of understanding how the evolving military meshes with changing medical practices. And if I do my job right, the next generation will be more historically minded.
Dr. Sanders Marble’s presentation was part of our ongoing history of medicine lecture series, which promotes awareness and use of NLM and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities.
This is one of a series of occasional posts highlighting collections that document medical activities during the Great War, which lasted from August 1914 to November 1918.