I had never been to an archive before last Thursday, and I was preoccupied by the impression that archives were too serious to be accessible – it should be like a combination of a library and a museum, with all the precious old books, glass covers, and signs say “no photographs, no touching”. And to be honest, I’m not a big fan of museums, as they are seldom engaging. The exhibits are so carefully protected, and only the introductions nearby are interacting with me.
But Sandra from the McGovern Historical Center gave me a whole different view. Archives are for unpublished and original work, and more importantly, the works are in many different formats: video tapes, graphs, books and diaries are all included in the McGovern Center. To my biggest surprise, we can touch the exhibits, flip through the pages of books and bulletins, and actually feel the history of medicine at our fingertips. Sandra showed us a surgical kit used in the mid-1800s, before the germ theory of disease even existed. The instruments had very little similarity to the ones we see today, as they looked more of like screws and saws to me which don’t have much exquisite precision. Sandra brought up an interesting point that the handles were all wooden, which means that blood could sip into the cleavages and bred bacteria and germs.
Right next to the kit is a human anatomy book in Germen. Even though I barely know German, neither anatomy, I could know from common sense that the Germen doctors had already obtained a good knowledge of human bodies in the 17th century. Frankly speaking, I think that this diagram is very successful in showing the sizes and shapes of different organs and the entire skeleton with such limited technology. More specifically, the pancreas depicted in this book is consistent with the findings of modern medicine, and the cross section diagram on the right even demonstrates the interior vessels of pancreas.
I was astonished by this book, as it turned out that the start of medicine can be traced back at least to the beginning of the 1600s, which is much earlier than I first expected. However, the surgical kit that I viewed as primitive existed 200 years after this anatomy work, so what did the Germen doctors use to perform surgery on patients? It made me ponder on the question that, how many failed cases had there been before the scientists found out the mysteries of human bodies and presented their work in this book? How many patients had died in sheer desperation before modern medicine matured and made us strong enough to fight off smallpox and anthrax?
That was the point that I realized that there were so many cruel and bloody failures behind the progresses of science. Then I saw a manual of surgical instruments in 1900s, with the glow of the stainless steel shining through the fraying pages. I felt so glad but at the same time so sorry, but I couldn’t explicate. I finally walked out of the McGovern Center, with my mind filled up with the deep conversation I just had with the history itself, as well as the passion to explore more of human bodies, diseases and health.