Thanksgiving is a time to reflect upon the many things in our lives for which we are grateful. Traditionally at this time Circulating Now features materials from the National Library of Medicine (NLM) historical collections related to the holiday. Past posts have explored thoughts on Thanksgiving during wartime, early illustrations of turkeys, food-borne illnesses (always a favorite!), as well as the History of Medicine Division (HMD)’s field trip to the National Agricultural Library (an institutional “Friendsgiving”).
This year, we are sharing personal reflections from our staff about items or collections which we are thankful the Library is preserving for current and future generations. Of course, we are grateful for all of NLM’s historical collections, acquired and preserved by our valued predecessors, but many have become particularly meaningful to those of us who are fortunate to work with the collections daily. Some items reveal new ideas, while others challenge our understandings about a person or an historical event. Some items reveal underrepresented roles, make us smile, or completely surprise us. We often encounter such items when we acquire new collections, describe to support discovery in our databases, curate them for exhibitions, digitize them for public access, and preserve them for the future.
We also want to share our gratitude for the researchers—around the world and from a variety of disciplines—who use our collections every day, engage with them in new ways, and whose perspectives reveal new narratives about the past. And we are grateful to you, the readers of this blog.
Here are just a few of these such items, selected by staff across History of Medicine Division (HMD), alongside personal reflections on why the item they selected is meaningful to them.
Is there a collection or item in the NLM historical collections that is personally meaningful to you? We welcome you to add yours in the comments section of this post below!
Letter written by George Washington, 1780
While this item in and of itself is an incredible part of our collection, the reason it is meaningful to me is what it represents. When I first started working in HMD as a Pathways Intern in 2015, I was feeling frazzled about my future aspirations and unsure which direction to head. By hiring me as a young and inexperienced intern still in undergraduate school, HMD gave me the opportunity to learn about librarianship and working with rare and historical materials for the first time. As I began to realize my passion for this field and learning more about it, one of my most vivid memories was with this item (the George Washington letter). Holly Herro, my office mate at the time and conservator extraordinaire, was working on the letter and brought me over to show it to me. She taught me that aging paper often smells like maple syrup because of the chemical breakdown it goes through when it gets older. As a young intern, I was in awe to be around such an important item written by an icon in American political history and to work alongside such intelligent librarians like Holly. Almost 4 years later I’m now a Reference Librarian, and this item is still dear to me as it represents the early stages in my love for historical items here at the National Library of Medicine. I couldn’t be more thankful for every learning experience I’ve had since then and will have in my work at NLM.
Obedience, 1965 by Stanley Milgram (16mm film)
Over the years I’ve read a fair amount about Stanley Milgram’s famous “Obedience to Authority” experiments. Milgram explored the extent to which people were willing to hurt others if ordered to do so by an authority figure, and what factors might contribute to that willingness. Because it’s Thanksgiving, I won’t dwell on the dispiriting outcome of the 1962 work, in which two-thirds of participants administered (fake) shocks of the highest voltage possible to the hapless guy (an actor) behind the wall. What I will say is that I’ve always found it fascinating—recognizing, too, that the experiment is unethical by today’s standards.
About five years ago I was in the NLM film vault, trying to bring order to piles of film cans and tapes. I picked up a battered metal container. In black marker across the top it read “Obedience.” Could this be…? I placed it on the Moviola player and started watching. Yes, it was. The experiment I’d read about unfolded on the screen. Not only that, but Dr. Milgram included a unique copyright statement: © Stanley Milgram 1965. Reproduction in whole or in part is permitted for any purposes of the United States Government. Though the copyright status is more complicated than this suggests, I’m thankful to Dr. Milgram for that permission, which offers potential for Medicine on Screen and other NLM uses. He carried out one of the most thought-provoking experiments in human history, one that is still discussed and debated. I’m grateful for science, I’m grateful for film, and I’m thrilled when the two meet up. And finally, I’m thankful that this very morning, no joke, I found a second copy of Obedience in another part of our building. Score!
Diary of Leonard C. McPhail, 1835
During this season of giving thanks, I would like to share publicly how immensely thankful I am for our historical collections and the dedicated people who have safeguarded and preserved them since 1836. While everything in these collections is valuable and important, among these many cherished items is one that has particular significance to me: the expedition journal of Leonard C. McPhail.
This is the handwritten diary of a young frontier Army surgeon in 1835, the year before the Army Surgeon General’s office began collecting the medical literature that would eventually form the foundation of the National Library of Medicine.
After joining the U.S. Army as a newly-certified surgeon in 1834 McPhail was assigned to Fort Gibson, a tiny frontier outpost deep in the territory designated on an 1835 map of the United States as the “Osage District,” west of the newly established state of Arkansas, further west than any other U.S. post at the time. It was from Fort Gibson that the young surgeon embarked on a three-month expedition with the 7th Infantry and Dragoons to provision another company encamped 180 miles away. Along the way he detailed encounters with native tribes (some friendly and helpful, some more wary), treacherous river crossings, oppressive weather, and of course, the ailments, injuries, and treatment of the 35 soldiers under his care.
As a veteran of the Army Medical Department who served over 150 years after Leonard McPhail, I am fascinated by the personal, detailed account of his experiences as an Army surgeon facing tremendous challenges in an austere environment. As I read his words, written in his own hand, I can sense the heavy responsibility he carried, coupled with the amazing adventure he lived. There were, of course, many young surgeons with similar experiences in those early days of the Army Medical Department, and their work is documented in official reports, commendations, and statistics, but personal memoirs like McPhail’s are rare. I am thankful that we have preserved it here in the National Library of Medicine, and that I have the opportunity to work here with this unique window on the past, along with all of the other important items in our collections. I am equally thankful to be able to share everything in our collections with any interested members of the public, and proud of our spirit of openness and access. Anyone who wants the experience of seeing McPhail’s diary in person, or anything else in our collections, is welcome to visit us in the Reading Room.
American Medical Association’s Deceased Physician Masterfile, MS C 556
The collection that has interest and even practical meaning for me is the American Medical Association’s Deceased Physician Masterfile. This condensed biographical collection of metadata includes information on thousands of deceased doctors, most of whom were United States citizens. This collection consists of 295 shoebox containers with call numbers MS C 556 and houses approximately 350,000 10X15 cm biographical index cards. The entirety of the collection fills 25 shelves, 87.5 linear feet and a date range from 1906 to 1969.
The Deceased Physician Masterfile has proved on occasion a very pragmatic tool for updating catalog records pertaining to a sizable portrait collection numbering about 30,000 photographic and print images. This portrait collection happens to be housed in a room adjacent to the Deceased Physician Masterfile. Most of these portraits predate the current NIH location of NLM which opened its’ doors in 1962. As such, information relating to the date of a physician or surgeon’s passing in the portrait collection is often missing from their cataloging records. And, providing deceased data about a doctor is not always as simple as looking up their name online particularly for those who were not as eminent historically as were others. Utilizing the Deceased Physician Masterfile involves simply searching alphabetically and entering biographical data into catalog fields like the 545 and the 690. There is no online distraction involving pop up ads, cookies, username/passwords and periodic fees.
Title: A page of stamps on astrological medicine from the medical stamp collection of Adolf W. Schwartz, 1940–1990
This item is what I remember most about my tour of the Prints and Photographs collection when I first interned in the History of Medicine Division. The collection was featured in an earlier blog post and is one page from a collection of medically-themed stamps which number in the area of 700,000 and fill 109 4-inch binders. The collection is a result of 60 years of collecting by Dr. Adolf W. Schwartz. Dr. Schwartz was born in Hamburg, Germany and received his M.D. at the University of Heidelberg. He later studied at the Mayo Clinic and practiced plastic surgery in Bakersfield California for over 30 years. Along with a life-long interest in stamp collecting, Dr. Schwartz was also a world-traveler, and many of the countries he visited are represented in the collection. Dr. Schwartz’s daughter generously donated the collection to the Library in 2010. There is such a variety in the stamps and it is so interesting to see what each one signifies.
Title: The Prudent Housewife, or Compleat English cook: being a collection of the newest and least expensive receipes in cookery . . .; and new and infallible rules to be observed in pickling, preserving, brewing, &c ; to which are added a treasure of valuable medicines, for the cure of every disorder, by Mrs Lydia Fisher, 1800
Psyche Williams-Forson, PhD, guest curator of the National Library of Medicine exhibition Fire & Freedom: Food & Enslavement in Early America included this book in the exhibition. Fire & Freedom explores how “meals can tell us how power is exchanged between and among different peoples, races, genders, and classes.” This was especially so in the kitchen of George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
The exhibition calls out the story of the enslaved cooks and their labors to grow, harvest, hunt, dress, cook, prepare, and serve meals to George and Martha Washington, their family, friends, and guests. Dr Williams-Forson wrote about how one enslaved cook, Lucy Lee, “most likely blended African, Native American, and European styles of preparation and cooking, thereby leaving her imprint on Washington family meals.”
When I see Mrs. Fisher’s guide to housewives and think about the privilege required to benefit from the publication and the other similar books featured in the online adaptation of Fire & Freedom, privilege available to Martha Washington and not the enslaved cooks at Mount Vernon, I have ever more respect for the strength and creativity of Lucy. She did not have access to the guidance of books like Mrs. Fisher’s, but Lucy was required to satisfy the plantation mistress who did.
The exhibition caption for this object, concisely and powerfully brings that facet of the story to life in a way that honors and brings to life the skills of Lucy Lee.
Title: The family flora and materia medica botanica: containing the botanical analysis, natural history and chemical and medical properties of plants (Volume 2), 1847
Flavorful holiday beverages abound as the festive season descends upon us. Every family will serve up their own special blend of jovial beverages, such as the traditional eggnog, chocolate mocha, cocktails infused with peppermint, pomegranate punch, and much more.
Within the NLM historical herbals collections the botanical studies tell us about the chemical and medicinal properties of the plants. One example is the Pomegranate (Punica Granatum L.), a large shrubby tree that bears fruits embedded with many, jewel-like, crimson berries. The aril (the layer between the peel and the seeds), and the peel contain phenolics and flavonoids including anthocyanins, which give the anomalous pomegranate fruit and juice a red color. Its leaves are about three inches long, half an inch broad in the middle, with a light, limpid green color. The flowers, which stand at the end of the branches as the illustration depicts, grow three or four together. The petals are roundish and wrinkled, inserted into the upper part of the tube of the calyx, and of ruby-red color. Beyond the splendid coloring of pomegranate, as Peter Good described in 1847, the flowers, rind of the fruit, and the bark of the root of the pomegranate have all been used in medicine for hundreds of years and is thus highly esteemed as an valuable plant.
The essential chemical properties of pomegranate fruit are of highly nutritious, with three-fold higher antioxidant activity compared to green tea. They contain high levels of bioactive compounds such as flavonoids and other phenolics and they exhibit antioxidant, antimicrobial properties. Various studies have reported that the high content of phenolic compounds in fruits and fruit juices promotes human health, and reduces the risk of degenerative diseases.
Books previously owned by African American Civil War surgeon, Alexander T. Augusta
Dr. Alexander T. Augusta is among fourteen known African Americans who served as surgeons during the American Civil War. He was the first African American medical officer commissioned in the U.S. Army. Augusta’s life and accomplishments were unusual for a black man in the mid-19th century and helped forge new pathways for African Americans in American society. The collections of the History of Medicine division contain three books from Augusta’s personal library including the Hand-Book for the Military Surgeon published in 1862.
Surgeons serving during the war, including Augusta, owned a copy of this handbook which is a compendium of all aspects of the duties of a medical officer including hospital administration, sanitary management, food preparation, and war surgery. Uncovered during a digitization project of library materials, Augusta’s copy of the Handbook was identified among several books from his personal collection that had been donated to the Surgeon General’s Library by Augusta’s wife, Mary O. Augusta, after her husband’s death in 1890. What makes Augusta’s personal books so unique is not the content of the books, but a page of Augusta’s prescription pad that was hidden within the pages of one of these books and used by him in his private medical practice while living and working in Washington, D.C. We can suppose that it was slipped into the book by Augusta after he drew an illustration of a pelvis on the page, perhaps as part of a teaching moment with a student or to provide a description of anatomy to a patient.
Many thanks to the staff who shared personal reflections on these items, for all the staff who collect, organize, describe, digitize, and care for History of Medicine collections, and to all who support making them accessible to broad audiences.
And to keep the celebration going, here are a few of the collection items selected by the Circulating Now Editorial Board that have made us smile!