history of medicine

President Garfield's front porch

I am not a political historian. I’m proof that it is quite possible to get an advanced degree in American history and know very little about presidents.

James A. Garfield is famous for having been assassinated—and in the history of medicine, he’s famous for having been killed by his doctors rather than his assassin. But I didn’t know what kind of person he was, or what he stood for. Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic went very far toward convincing me that Garfield was the most admirable, honest, intelligent person to ever go into politics. I was so impressed by this portrait (despite suspecting it to be hagiographic) that when I was in Cleveland last week I drove out of my way to visit the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio.

Millard’s strongly narrative history combines the stories of Garfield’s life and political career with the stories of Charles Guiteau, his eventual assassin, and of Alexander Graham Bell, who basically invented a metal detector while trying to find the bullets in the president’s body. But Garfield’s life story is enormously compelling in itself. The last president raised in a log cabin, he was able to attend school because his widowed mother farmed to support the family. (The ranger at the Garfield Historic Site dismissively referred to this formidable woman, Liza Garfield, as “Grandma” throughout the whole tour.) He was a natural scholar; the school at which he took a janitor position in exchange for tuition hired him as a teacher just a few years later. He served as a college president, farmed, read books aloud with his family, fought in Congress for freedmens’ rights. When he was nominated for president against his will after a contentious balloting at the 1880 Republican convention, he didn’t campaign in the modern sense but went back to Mentor. He would give speeches to the gathered politicians and journalists from his front porch. An opponent of the spoils system, civil service reform was high on his political agenda.

When the disturbed Guiteau shot Garfield just a few months into his presidency, Garfield’s body was placed at the center of the debates over the germ theory and Listerian practices in contemporary surgery. His doctors poked around in the wound in his side, looking for the bullets; he died of sepsis eventually, excruciatingly. I was surprised to learn that even in 1881, after the autopsy, it was widely believed that his doctors had killed him. (I had thought that this was a case of historians looking back with contempt on ineffective medical practice.) Guiteau even offered this widely held opinion in the courtroom as an argument in his defense.

Garfield was mourned extravangantly. His widow, Lucretia, devoted the rest of her life to promoting his legacy, collecting his papers and founding a memorial library at the house in Mentor, a progenitor of the presidential library movement. Though Garfield’s papers are now at the Library of Congress, his books are still in Mentor. What a missed opportunity–the historic site could use his books to help visitors understand his views on modern farming, statecraft, religion (he was a Disciples minister), and science, rather than putting them behind glass and saying how silly the titles of those old books were. I learned so much about Garfield’s life and death from Millard’s compelling book that I wished that the interpretation of his historic house would demonstrate that same sense of the continued importance and power of Garfield’s story.

*Book source: review copy from the publisher.


Some history of medicine related links today:

The wonderful Holly Tucker has a new blog, Scientia Curiosa

A blog from the Medical Heritage Library, “a digital curation collaborative among some of the world’s leading medical libraries.”  Digitized materials are available at the Internet Archive.

The National Museum of Health and Medicine is a great medical history organization that’s been assiduously doing DIY digitization and putting materials up at the Internet Archive, Flickr and their blog.  They post a letter from their collections every day, and recently had an interesting exchange trying to puzzle out a patient ‘s sudden muscular atrophy and “prevention of marriage” (that’s 4 links in that sentence).  Historical diagnosis is tough–thanks for doing your work in public.

In other news:

Cliopatria award nominations are open!  Nominate your favorite history blogs.

Thanks to Mike Rhode for posting about this intriguing job ad.  Mass General has some great historical collections.


Projected start date: March 1, 2010
Apply here: http://www.mgh.harvard.edu/careers/viewall.aspx

Massachusetts General Hospital intends to build and establish a new
museum on its main campus in downtown Boston. The Mass General Museum is
to be located in a prominent location on Cambridge Street, a highly
visible and public edge of the main campus facing Beacon Hill to the

By means of exciting and enriching exhibits and educational programs,
the intent of the Museum is to serve the hospital of which it is a part,
the medical profession and researchers, and a wider audience that
includes patients, visitors and the general public. The museum will also
be a “venue of distinction” for receptions, functions, and dinners.
Included is the Mass General archives, which is the repository of
documents and records closely associated with the history of the Mass
General. Safe and secure access to the full archives and providing
reading room accommodation for researchers on site is an important
function of the history program.

The position of Interim Museum Director/Consultant is of 9 to 12 months’
duration during which time architectural planning and exhibition design
will be in progress. In addition, policy and procedure development,
financial planning, fundraising, and personnel preparation (paid staff
and volunteers) for the museum and archives will proceed. It is the
intention of the Hospital to succeed this temporary appointment with a
full-time position, contingent upon sufficient funding.


The museum director will be responsible for the development and
implementation of policies and procedures of the Mass General museum.
The director will work closely with the Mass General History Committee
and other subcommittees to ensure effective communication and is the
lead spokesperson and advocate for the museum within the internal and
external community. With senior management, the museum director assumes
financial and operational authority for the museum within budgetary
guidelines. The director oversees curatorial activities, art and
artifact collection, archives, database, website, and all educational
programming activities. The director supervises all museum staff and

During the course of design and construction, the museum director will
work closely with senior management, the project manager, architects and
engineers, exhibition design consultants, volunteers, the Mass General
History Committee, and other parties engaged in the development of the


* Works with the Mass General History Committee and senior leadership to
develop and adhere to the mission, goals, and objectives of the museum.
Directs and leads the implementation and articulation of these goals in
a collaborative and cooperative manner.
* Understands the unique nature of the museum within the context of the
hospital community (patients, families, staff, clinical providers, and
* Provides vision and dynamic personal leadership to internal museum
staff and external community regarding museum strategy, programming
initiatives, and mission. Serves as the key spokesperson for the museum.
* Develops policies and procedures that govern all areas of museum
operations including collection management, curatorial operations,
storage, exhibition design and evaluation, accessibility, education and
programming, registration and database, archives, research,
conservation, website, and communications. Adheres to and keeps current
with all privacy policies instituted within the hospital setting.
* Develops annual operating and capital budgets for the museum.
Monitors operating budget versus actual expenses and identifies
* Supervises professional staff, non-professional administrative staff,
and volunteers. Performs annual performance appraisals.
* Recommends capital budget proposals regarding equipment, space, and
* Manages the recruitment, interviewing, hiring and training of museum
staff. Initiates corrective action as necessary according to Mass
General policies and procedures.
* Insures compliance with the legal requirements that govern museums and
non-profit institutions.
* Works collaboratively with Public Affairs and Marketing to develop
appropriate communication and marketing materials.
* Works collaboratively with Mass General Development Office to assist
in the creation of philanthropic case statements, prospect contact,
cultivation, and stewardship of existing donors.
* Develops strong volunteer engagement, retention and recruitment
programs in coordination with the Ladies Visiting Committee and the Mass
General Volunteer Department.
* Develops docent training program for staff and volunteers.
* Facilitates and encourages continuing education for museum staff and
* Maintains a clean, safe, and inviting physical environment within the
museum and archives. Maintains proper conditions within museum and
storage areas for collection and archives.
* Develops disaster plan in accordance with Mass General policies and
communicates plan to staff. Recognizes special requirements of Mass
General collection and archives.

* Works with internal museum staff, key hospital staff and committees,
as well as external stakeholders to develop content for unique
educational programs within the museum.
* Develops inspirational educational programming, seeking direction from
the museum’s mission statement and Mass General community.
* Evaluates the effectiveness of exhibitions and educational programs
and makes improvements as necessary.
* Develops and implements educational programs adjunct to onsite
exhibits. May include workshops, special lectures and visiting experts.

* Submits funding proposals to appropriate agencies for special
* Monitors awarded grants for compliance, balanced budget, and funder
* Works with Mass General Research Management office to comply with
internal and external grant requirements.


* Master’s Degree required. Doctoral degree with strong research
background would be of interest.
* Museum experience required.
* Supervisory and management experience required.
* Strong communication skills, both oral and written, with the ability
to show flexibility within an increasingly diverse and complex
* Strong customer service and interpersonal skills.


Hubert Murray FAIA RIBA
Senior Project Manager
MGH Planning and Construction
all correspondence to be addressed to:
Partners HealthCare Inc.
101 Merrimac Street, Suite 800
Boston, MA 02114-4719
T | 617.643.6414 F | 617.724.2740

A few interesting (though short-term) jobs in the public history of science, technology and medicine:

Project Leader, Plastics Collection, Syracuse University

Syracuse University Library invites applications for the position of Plastics Collection Project Leader. This 18 month, benefits eligible position reports to the Director of Special Collections. The successful candidate will lead an ambitious effort to build the plastics history collection, which includes artifacts, printed materials, and archives, and oversee the ongoing development of the web portal plastics.syr.edu.

In 2008, Syracuse University Library took custody of a collection of thousands of artifacts, books, and archival collections documenting the history of the plastics industry. Most of these materials are housed in the library’s Special Collections Research Center (scrc.syr.edu) where interested patrons may consult them. This bold new collecting area requires a well-rounded and entrepreneurial leader to administer its continued growth.

Requirements (listed in order of priority):
Define collecting goals for library’s plastics collection.
Oversee the continued development of the web portal plastics.syr.edu.
Build relationships with industry leaders in order to attract donation of collection materials and cash gifts.
Suffuse plastics collection into Syracuse’s many academic teaching programs.
Convene plastics advisory board made up of interested plastics industry and academic parties.
Answer reference questions about the collection and arrange for patron use.

Master’s degree in the history of science, design, technology, or business (PhD preferred) OR master’s degree in library and information science or museum studies.
Work experience in academic libraries, archives, or museum.
General knowledge about the role of plastics in history and society.
Ability to work with individuals from diverse backgrounds, including academia, industry, and business.
Proven record of leadership in programming and outreach.

Salary and Benefits: 18-month, benefits-eligible position, full-time, 37.5 hours per week. Annual Salary: $50,000. Information regarding the University’s generous benefits package can be found on the Department of Human Resources website at http://humanresources.syr.edu/benefits/.

Contact: Syracuse University requires that you complete an online application. To complete an online application through the Internet, please go to http://www.sujobopps.com. Applicants should attach both a cover letter and resume with the application and include the names of three professional references.

Application deadline: Position will remain open until filled. Syracuse University is an Equal Opportunity Employer.

Curator, Koch Institute Public Gallery, MIT Museum

The MIT Museum and the MIT Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research seek to appoint a Curator, for a period of 15 months in the first instance, starting on or about January 15, 2010. The Curator of the Koch Institute Public Gallery will have direct responsibility for developing and delivering the first exhibitions that will be installed in the Koch Institute Public Gallery to coincide with the formal opening of the Koch Institute in 2011.

The new Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research will formally open in March 2011. The Institute will bring together cancer biologists and biological engineers in a pioneering “third revolution” initiative devoted to path-breaking research and training. A Public Gallery on the ground floor of the Koch Institute, in Kendall Square, Cambridge, will provide a suite of exhibitions about cancer-related and other bio-medical science and engineering at MIT. The Koch Institute is collaborating with the MIT Museum in the development, maintenance and renewal of these exhibitions as part of a larger Life Sciences and Technology Initiative at MIT.

The MIT Museum bridges between MIT and the wider community through galleries, exhibitions, educational and general visitor programs and the annual Cambridge Science Festival. The Museum holds major collections reflecting MIT’s accomplishments in research and innovation; and it continues to collect in key areas of current science and engineering.

The Curator will have direct responsibility to the MIT Museum Director for:

Exhibition-related research, including (but not confined to): Library and archive research on the history of MIT life sciences and technology; Interviews with key Koch Institute faculty, staff and students.

Development of detailed proposals for exhibition content, including: Research on candidate scientific, engineering and other elements; Research on the educational needs of key target audiences; Identification of appropriate objects, images, videos and other multi-media elements.

Drafting text (including exhibit labels).

Working with the Museum exhibition team and external consultants (exhibition designers, fabricators, etc.) to ensure the successful implementation of exhibit ideas and plans.

Supervising the installation of exhibits in the gallery, to ensure successful delivery on time and budget.

The Curator of the Koch Institute Public Gallery will report to the Director of the Museum, and work closely with Museum, Koch Institute and other MIT staff.

This is a 15-month term position that may be renewable, depending on the availability of funding. Applicants must apply online through MIT’s Human Resources Dept. at http://hrweb.mit.edu/, position #mit-00006745. Please note that the review and hiring process will proceed without delay, and the successful candidate will be expected to assume the position immediately.
Job Requirements

The successful candidate will bring: A close acquaintance with the recent history and contemporary practice of the life sciences and technology, and preferably in cancer research; Previous experience (a minimum of 2 years) of working in informal science education and public outreach, preferably in a museum environment; Ability to work in a multi-disciplinary team of content specialists, exhibition management specialists, designers, fabricators, etc; Academic training (preferably at the doctoral level) in an appropriate subject area (life sciences and technology, and/or the history of the life sciences and technology, and/or science communication).

If you’d like to read my dissertation, here it is.

Please cite as:

Suzanne Fischer, “Diseases of Men:  Sexual Health and Medical Expertise in Advertising Medical Institutes, 1900-1930,” PhD diss., University of Minnesota, 2009.

Creative Commons License
Diseases of Men: Sexual Health and Medical Expertise in Advertising Medical Institutes, 1900-1930 by Suzanne M Fischer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.


 “Suzanne Fischer will defend her dissertation, “Diseases of Men: Sexual Health and Medical Expertise in Advertising Medical Institutes, 1900-1930,” on Monday, May 18, in Physics 236A, beginning at 1:00 pm.

All members of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine Program [and everyone else] are invited to attend her opening presentation (about 20 to 30 minutes, including questions), and then the examining will convene in private for the examination.”

Historians of medicine! Want to work with fascinating medical collections? Perhaps you should apply for this Archives Technician job at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Hurry up! It closes today.

Congratulations to the distinguished historian of medicine Nancy Siraisi, who is one of 25 MacArthur Fellows this year.  Her work combines careful scholarship with vivid stories about the world of medieval and Renaissance medicine.  This award is also a great reflection on our field; historians of science/technology/medicine can stand among the best scholars and thinkers of the day.  Hurray for Nancy!

To celebrate both Nurses’ Week and Minnesota’s 150th birthday, the Hennepin County Medical Center History Museum and the Metropolitan Medical Center Historical Library are putting up a special exhibit, “Hospital Stories:  150 Years of Minneapolis Health Care.”  We trace the history of hospitals in Minneapolis from Cottage Hospital in 1870 to the present, talking about people and noting dynamic changes in hospital organization and in training for nursing, medical and other staff.  The exhibit is supported by a grant from the Minnesota Sesquicentennial Commission.

An open house is today, May 6, from 1-4 pm in the Blue 1 and Blue L lobbies of HCMC on 8th and Chicago in downtown Minneapolis.  The exhibit is spread across 4 locations on the HCMC campus:  Blue Lower Level atrium, Blue 1 lobby across from the Gift Shop, Orange 3 next to the cafeteria, and the Purple Lobby near the pharmacy, and will be up through May and June.  Come visit!

The New-York Historical Society has a great-sounding new exhibit up:  Plague in Gotham!  Cholera in 19th C New York.  Cholera was an urban scourge in the 19th century, and public health physicians and bacteriologists studying cholera epidemics led to some really interesting discoveries and innovations (cf John Snow; also the London sewers).  Charles Rosenberg’s brilliant little book, The Cholera Years, which discusses cholera epidemics mostly in New York, in 1832, ’49 and ’66, is a classic in the history of medicine, and an artifact-based telling of these epidemic stories sounds great.  The NYHS has an exhibit blog up, which provides additional material on cholera, the epidemics and the exhibition, including a neat map of important locations in their story in 1832.  Go see it for me; I won’t be in NYC this year. The exhibit runs through June 28.

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