Winter 2001

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Where The Past Lives

By Anne Bennett Swingle | Photographs by Keith Weller

In neatly catalogued boxes in Hopkins' Medical Archives lie faded letters, photographs and documents from long-ago physicians. Without them, much of the story of 20th-century medicine would be lost.

M n the winter of 1963, 20 four-drawer, vertical file cabinets, 60 document cases and dozens of small containers were handed over to the School of Medicine and placed in a basement storage area. Inside were hundreds of photographs, diaries and patient records and reams of personal and professional correspondence. Many of the letters were in German, and had been written by some of the most prominent figures in early 20th-century psychiatry.

Psychiatrist Adolf Meyer sailing to Europe.

These were the papers of Adolf Meyer, Johns Hopkins’ chief of psychiatry from 1909 to 1941, a pioneer in the emerging specialty. After Meyer’s death in 1950, the documents cluttered his rambling home in Baltimore’s Roland Park section, where his two research assistants struggled to write the eminent psychiatrist’s biography. Now, the material was about to spend 10 more years moldering in storage. During this time, correspondence between Meyer and historic figures like Harvard’s William James, who laid out the early principles of psychology, would be either lost or destroyed. Uncataloged and in a state of disarray, this irreplaceable resource would remain closed to all but the most persistent scholars.

Finally, in the fall of 1975, the University appointed a History of Medicine Ph.D. student to sort and index the Meyer papers. More material was added, and today the Meyer collection, one of the largest of its kind in the United States, is one of the most heavily used parts of Johns Hopkins’ Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives. The story of these papers illustrates what can happen when a prominent collection isn’t cared for properly and why most institutions now maintain an official archive to preserve their history. It also stands in stark contrast to the way Hopkins now handles donated collections.

The Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives is the official repository for the major records of The Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Schools of Medicine, Nursing and Public Health. It counts among its holdings the personal paper collections of more than 200 faculty and staff, some 30,000 historic photographs, biographical files on more than 10,000 people and several thousand objets d’art and artifacts, including a major portrait collection.

Gerard Shorb and Nancy McCall examine Helen Taussig's 1954 Albert Lasker Award for outstanding contributions to medicine.

Situated on the fringe of the East Baltimore campus and directed since 1987 by archivist Nancy McCall, the Medical Archives doesn’t function like a library. Instead, it’s a base for primary sources—the genuine article, the unbound, unpublished and irreplaceable. Though it’s open to the public, its stacks are closed. Patrons, most of them academics drawn here to delve into records that detail Hopkins’ role in the development of 20th-century medicine, typically are in search of photographs, or reference information or help with scholarly projects. They place their requests, then wait in the reading room while staffers crank open the compact shelving units and retrieve what they’ve asked for.

For those who relish coming on new details about figures long departed, the voluminous Medical Archives institutional records collection can offer up a treasure of information. Neatly cataloged in gray cardboard cases called Hollinger boxes is 100 years’ worth of correspondence from high-level search committees and faculty promotion committees detailing their impressions of many of medicine’s luminaries, stacks of private records and personal statements about faculty and postdoctoral fellows, minutes from long-ago department meetings, ancient research data and sets of log books dating back to 1889. “The vital records must be saved permanently,” says Gerard Shorb, who oversees this function. “We have every student record since 1893 in our custody.”

Some of the archives’ most intriguing gems are scattered around campus in unlikely places. Behind a locked door in the middle of the Department of Surgery, for example, is a room known as the Halsted Museum (right), full of American antique furniture collected by Hopkins’ first surgeon in chief in his stately townhouse on Eutaw Place. There’s a tall case clock (ca. 1775), a Pennsylvania corner cupboard, a slant-front desk, and Sheraton and Chippendale chairs, including a rare and valuable triple-backed settee. Halsted’s top hat, canes and surgery tools are on display, and an early example of the rubber gloves he used in surgery, encased in lucite, is tucked away in a desk drawer. Looking proudly down on the whole collection is a 1932 portrait of the great man himself.

On the first floor of the School of Nursing, a collection of nurse uniforms illustrates changing styles of the 20th century and, on the fifth floor, near the elevators, sits Florence Nightingale’s wheelchair. In the Children’s Center, a collection of early bottles used by staff to feed babies decorates a hallway.

In a locked case in the handsome Baldwin Parlour, scene of some of the Hospital’s most important business meetings, lie the brass keys that unlocked the early building’s front doors, the Haviland china once used in the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic, a brass doorknob from the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children, and the newspaper report published on the day the Hospital opened. Next door, in the Board Room, is the carved sideboard that belonged to the revered William Osler and Johns Hopkins’ own grand mahogany dining room table, large enough to receive 16 guests.

The Archives also holds onto material on patients, not core medical records, but peripheral information on cases dating back to the beginning of the Hospital. Shorb says patient data turns up in case files, log books and in clinical and scientific documentation, including thousands of files related to human subjects research. And while other institutions typically close such material files to scholars,  the Hopkins Archives considers each request to see patient information and lets a special committee decide if it has merit.

Johns Hopkins might never have had an official medical archives had it not been for Alan Mason Chesney. Chesney was a Baltimore boy, a JHU graduate and a member of the School of Medicine’s class of 1912. He joined the Hopkins faculty in the Department of Medicine, became a respected physician, teacher and researcher on syphilis, and may well have become chairman of medicine had he not been plagued by a hearing problem. Still, he was named dean of the School of Medicine in 1929 and stayed in the job for 24 years, longer than anyone before or since. Chesney had an extraordinary penchant for history, and during his deanship prepared a three-volume account of the Hospital and the School of Medicine from their inception until 1914. In researching the work, he came upon wonderful early records of the two institutions and began putting together a collection. Gradually, Chesney became the unofficial gatekeeper of Hopkins’ past and also the chief advocate for establishing a true medical archives.

Later, when Thomas Turner, dean from 1957 until 1968, stepped down from the top post, he assumed Chesney’s unofficial role as archivist and wrote his own history of Hopkins (Heritage of Excellence), beginning where Chesney had left off. Turner also convinced McCall, his part-time editorial assistant and a graduate student at Homewood, to help set up an official archival program for the medical institutions.

McCall had been in Florence studying Renaissance art when the city was flooded in 1966 and was one of hundreds who rallied to rescue the treasured works of art, books and historical documents. That and her marriage to the late Charles W. Mann, the curator of rare books and special collections at Penn State, helped to propel her into the world of archives and manuscripts. At Turner’s suggestion, she took a certification course and did an internship in the field at the National Library of Medicine.

The Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives, a part of the Institute of the History of Medicine, was officially dedicated in May 1978 and named for the man who began it all. Over the years, it would move three times, and today the collection is situated in a former furniture store at 2024 E. Monument St.

Space—all 4,200 square feet of it—is decidedly at a premium, and many items, including a substantial portion of the institutional records, are stored off-site. McCall worries about ways to reduce labor and storage costs, but despite such concerns, she’s managed to shape her domain—a staff of five and a faithful corps of volunteers run the whole enterprise—into one of the leading institutional archives in the United States.

Nationally, Hopkins has taken the lead in preserving its scientific record of medicine and the role of the institution through the years. Today, as an award winner in its field, the Chesney Archives is hailed for the ease with which it makes its collections available and for its knowledgeable staff. McCall and Lisa Mix, who’s in charge of processing and research, are known in the archival community for their 1995 book, Designing Archival Programs to Advance Knowledge in the Health Fields.

One day last fall, the Medical Archives staff gathered to look at artifacts and documents that had recently come through the door. Every piece of memorabilia first had been recorded by registrar Marjorie Kehoe. Now, the group was going to decide what to acquire or “accession.” On the agenda today was a small part of a very big collection—what’s being called the Johns Hopkins Nursing History Collection. The materials reflect nursing education at Hopkins dating back to 1889 and contain records from the nurses’ alumni association and personal papers from faculty and graduates. There’s also a treasure trove of memorabilia from Florence Nightingale, donated by Howard Kelly, Hopkins’ first Gyn/Ob specialist, who died in 1943. The collection is so vast that staff member Phoebe Evans Letocha, a Ph.D. student in history at the University of Delaware, was hired just to sort it out.

On this day, at a long table amid a sea of dusty smells, ancient and disintegrating papers, dry-rotting rubber bands and brittle brown tape, Letocha is pulling items, one by one, from their cardboard containers. There is an 1893 letter from Florence Nightingale to Isabel Hampton Robb, the first superintendent of the nursing school, a daybook containing student records from the school with entries beginning in 1889 in the hands of Adelaide Nutting and Robb, photographs—class photos, rolled panoramic photos, photos in scrapbooks. There is a nurse’s uniform from the 1920s, another from the ’40s, stiff caps, detachable cuffs and collars, aprons, belts, capes, buttons and hooks, even a pair of ugly brown shoes. There is also a bottle of dried, yet still-glistening, Spanish flies used in pharmacology classes. And there is a small bouquet of dried flowers tied with a ribbon that was presented to Robb when she married in London in July 1894. A British nursing journal reported: “The delicate white bouquet, with long white ribbon bows, gained more attention than any other detail, for everyone in the church knew that Miss Florence Nightingale had just sent it.”

But the bouquet causes Andy Harrison, who oversees fine arts and artifacts, to cringe. It is he who will have to protect these treasured remains. Are they worth preserving, or too fragile for anyone to use? he’s wondering. The dilemma is a common one, but eventually McCall will hit on a solution: A botanical taxonomist will identify the flowers, the bouquet will be recreated, photographed with a digital camera and put up on the nursing project Web site: virtual icon.

In a way, there’s never really an end to such projects, as Lisa Mix knows all too well. It is she who is revising the guide to the Horsley Gantt collection, which was originally processed in the early 1980s, and preparing to mount it on the Archives Web site.

They’re mostly white, and mostly men, but the Medical Archives’ collection of portraits of the austere icons of Hopkins Medicine is still one awesome sight. And there’s a reason for the homogeneity in their artistic style. The largely 20th-century collection grows out of a tradition of commemorative portraiture that’s well established. From the 18th century on, medicine evolved in a sort of heroic tradition. Paintings of celebrated physicians reflected that evolution in their grand manner and style. Grandest of all is “The Four Doctors” by John Singer Sargent (above), the Medical Archives’ single most valuable holding. It hangs today in the West Reading Room of the William H. Welch Library along with another Sargent portrait of School of Medicine benefactor Mary Elizabeth Garrett.

Horsley Gantt was a behavioral biologist who studied with Ivan Pavlov in his laboratory in St. Petersburg, Russia, before setting up his own Pavlovian lab at Hopkins in 1929. Gantt was a compulsive collector. Just to hold everything he was saving—fireplace fenders, balls of string, dirty animal cages from his lab—he had to buy a row house facing Patterson Park in East Baltimore.

The long process of transferring the collection to Hopkins began after Gantt’s death in 1980. Alarmed by the hazards of byproducts of Gantt’s biomedical research, McCall enlisted the aid of experts to test the materials. Eventually they used ionizing radiation, a controversial but effective method, to cleanse the items of microbes and fungi. Attired in spacesuit-like protective clothing, McCall and Shorb, working in Gantt’s row house, stumbled on a series of posters stuck together in a congealed roll. The ancient posters fell apart when they were unrolled, but conservators from Homewood and the Folger Library, including one who could read Russian, reassembled them. What emerged was a priceless collection of colorful public-health broadsides illustrating the dangers of diseases like smallpox and syphilis. Together, they offer a dramatic social commentary on postrevolutionary Russia and remain among the Medical Archives’ most valuable holdings.

It’s such finds that keep people like Nancy McCall going. Even after decades of digging through ancient crates of often unusable material, she never gets used to the thrill of stumbling on an amazing new piece of history and then making it available to a researcher looking for a new twist to the past.

Visit the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives Website for a catalogue of personal papers, complete guides to the major collections, special exhibits and more (