Visiting the Backstage of Medical History

When I heard that we would be visiting an archive, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t understand the relevance of an archive, because I imagined that any information a researcher needed could be accessed in a library or on the Internet.

However, after touring the McGovern Historical Center and listening to Ms. Yates describe the archive’s purpose, I realized that I had been very narrow-minded. Walking down the aisles filled with books, photographs, film reels, and other odd artifacts, I realized that all the resources we have access to online are only available after an archivist has sorted, cataloged, and photographed those documents.

I was fascinated when Ms. Yates pointed out surgical tools from the late 1800s and explained how you could tell that the instruments were designed prior to the discovery of the germ theory of disease: the wooden handle of the blade easily absorbed blood that dripped down the blade, providing a breeding ground for bacteria and viruses. Her example made clear the opportunities that an archive can provide to researchers.

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Surgical kit circa 1850-1880 (photo taken at the McGovern Historical Center)

I was surprised when we were allowed to touch the archival material. It fascinated me to imagine a surgeon holding the same instrument and operating on patients over 100 years ago. It’s primary sources like these that cannot be digitized but can only be experienced and analyzed at an archive.

I also learned that an archive’s main role is to organize and preserve unpublished work. This reminded me of an assignment I did in high school where I analyzed poetry by Sylvia Plath. During my research, I had found photographs of Plath’s notes and prior drafts, which had given me further insight into Plath’s ideas. It was only after our visit to the archive that I realized that I was able to access those photographs because of the existence of archives.

At the archive, it was interesting to see the kinds of unpublished work that a medical archive stored, including physician notes, film reels of surgeries, and original magazine artwork. I particularly enjoyed looking at the original contact sheets and negatives for an article in the Medical World News; we could identify which photos the magazine decided to publish over others.

Archives give us a behind-the-scenes perspective of published work that we sometimes take for granted. Through archives, we are able to see the authentic and original ideas and content that may have been lost in the publishing process. This backstage perspective of an archive gives us vital raw information to help us analyze and understand history with more insight.

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