The National Library of Medicine announces new public access to more than 1,600 materials selected and digitized from the Leonidas H. Berry Papers, 1907–1982 manuscript collection including letters, photographs, and ephemera documenting the career and personal life of the trailblazing physician and civil rights advocate. His work is recognized in the NLM traveling banner exhibition For All the People: A Century in Citizen Action in Health Care Reform; the online adaptation of the exhibition features 1,686 digitized items in a digital gallery. Stay tuned this week as Circulating Now features materials from the collection in honor of what would be Dr. Berry’s 116th birthday—July 16, 2018.
By Ashley Bowen ~
Among the letters, newspaper clippings, photographs, and memorabilia (like a pen used by President Johnson), the Leonidas H. Berry Papers collection also includes many pieces of ephemera. Why might a medical library like the NLM preserve items like a customized napkin or the luggage tag issued to attendees of the 1966 World Congress of Gastroenterology?
Ephemera refers to materials “not intended to last for more than a short time” like tickets, business cards, labels, invitations, and other items used during daily life. These items, and more like them in the collection of Dr. Berry’s papers, offer insight into the everyday world Dr. Berry occupied—from luncheon menus in the 1950s to the logistics of luggage transfer during a major international conference.
Although ephemera makes up only a small portion of the Leonidas H. Berry Papers, these disposable items augment the medical history and provide information about Dr. Berry’s life that is not otherwise captured in the formal correspondence, published reports, or photographs that make up the rest of the archival collection. Some of these ephemera are included in the more than 1,680 digitized items recently selected for digitization.
Professional and personal ephemera are all present in the Leonidas H. Berry collection The professional ephemera is instantly recognizable to today’s medical professionals: a name badge and ribbons from a 1981 National Medical Association Convention, the program for the Cook County Physicians’ Association installation banquet covered in Dr. Berry’s handwritten notes, and a Christmas card containing both a personal and professional message.
The bulk of the ephemera in the Berry collection relates to his professional life. However, a few sentimental objects did make it into the collection. A customized napkin from Dr. Berry’s parents’ 50th wedding anniversary party is like nothing else in the collection. Although Dr. Berry did not document why he kept this napkin, it compliments an article about the Berry’s anniversary in Voice of Missions and a photograph from the party. In concert, these items present a fuller picture of an important moment in his family’s life. The improbability of a printed napkin surviving for over 60 years also suggests how important his parents’ anniversary was to Dr. Berry, a man with a deep interest in his family’s history.
The boundaries between these general categories of ephemera often blur. For example, a retirement card from Mary E. Frizzell, president, the Women’s Missionary Society of the AME Church, is both a marker of a professional milestone and a testament to Dr. Berry’s ongoing and deep relationship with the AME Church. Likewise, did Dr. Berry keep an invitation to a reception at the Palais de Chaillot by the president of the IVème Congrès de L’Association des Sociétés Nationals, Européennes de Gastro-Enteréologies, including his own handwritten description of meal Berry had at the nearby Eiffel Tower, as a professional document, souvenir of the trip, or (most likely) some combination of both?
Read the first post in this series: Leonidas H. Berry and the Fight to Desegregate Medicine
Ashley Bowen, PhD is a guest curator for the Exhibition Program in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.