Looking Back to Move Forward

People often regard the field of science to be a study heavily focused on innovation: developing a treatment method better than the previous, building a device more effective than the previous, and doing research more groundbreaking than the previous. Inevitably, researchers are always looking to pump out studies to publish—“new” and “revolutionary”. Perhaps this “innovative” aspect of science that pushes us to be ever more forward-thinking may, in other cases, hinder us from appreciating the work that we, as a community of scientists, have accomplished. Trying to build on the most recent model of “best method”, often the models from years to decades ago can get chucked away. The visit to the McGovern Historical Center was an invaluable experience in that not only were we able to see the medical journals of the 60’s and get a hands-on feel for surgical tools from decades ago, but, ultimately, it was also a reminder to cherish the steps we took to stand where we are in science and medicine today. As I found out, there was still so much to learn from these decade old archives.

Camman’s Model Stethoscope, circa 1900, very similar to the one at McGovern (Image: http://melnickmedicalmuseum.com/2009/12/01/a-short-history-of-stethoscopes/)

Prior to the visit, the thought of an archive brought to my mind stacks of old books, lined by manuscripts chronicled merely by their placement in the seemingly endless row of shelves. When we arrived, I was most excited to see the old models of the stethoscope and forceps that we now call DeBakeys after Dr. Michael DeBakey from Baylor College of Medicine—legend of cardiovascular surgery. I was pleasantly surprised to see the old nursing gowns as well as amputation kits used on war grounds. In particular, I found it intriguing that Sandra Yates, our archivist, pointed out that having wooden handles for the amputation saws was probably not a good idea. As soon as I heard this, I was disgusted by a major possibility of the Marburg virus being transmitted (as we read in Preston’s The Hot Zone) while, simultaneously fascinated at the importance of selection of materials in engineering surgical tools. The recognition of viral transmissions and health risks associated with handles that soak up blood was probably a major step forward in health care during the time period that followed.

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Surgical Kit, circa 1850-1880 (Image taken at McGovern Historical Center)

The archived surgical kit from around 1850-1880 helps us to recognize this fact. Furthermore, because our multimedia project handles the Passing in Review radio program, we were able to see the original record that holds the recording. Archivist Sandra Yates noted that even she was surprised to receive the abnormally big record. She also pointed out that there no longer is technology to retrieve audio from such huge records and that it was a good thing the audio was already retrieved few years ago. In this I saw 1) the importance of timely management of archival materials in different kinds of media and 2) the modern technology involved in retrieving archival materials such as old records and floppy disks.

Passing in Review Record (Photo taken at McGovern Historical Center)

As I looked around more and started reading the journals, I was particularly interested in Cooley’s Step-by-Step Transplant Film published in October 4, 1968 in the Medical World News magazine. Being the cardiovascular surgery nerd I am, Dr. Cooley had only been the legendary figure pioneering heart transplants. Seeing the photographs from the first successful artificial heart transplant was truly a humbling experience. I asked Sandra if they had more films of Dr. Cooley’s and Dr. DeBakey’s surgeries and she was glad to let me know how to access the films. In particular, the deep hypothermic circulatory arrest (DHCA) surgeries and patients’ post-surgery reports from the time period were especially intriguing to me as a major research currently in cardiovascular surgery concerns neuronal damage as a result of DHCA. These are the kinds of archival records that help to identify flaws in surgical procedures still in use today.

Cooley’s Step-by-Step Transplant Film published 04/10/68 Medical World News Magazine (Photo taken at McGovern Historical Center)


In sum, the field trip to the McGovern Historical Center was truly a humbling experience—being able to handle decade old magazines and surgical tools. I now recognize the importance of knowing where we started to acknowledge the innovations of today. I was further enlightened by the fact that such archival materials help to point out flaws that, decades later in time, we still try to understand (as in the case of DHCA surgeries). I am excited to revisit the McGovern Historical Center to scavenge for more Texas Medical Center surgery and patient records if chance allows.


2 thoughts on “Looking Back to Move Forward

  1. I really appreciated how you started your blog post with the significance of the archive and the deeper meaning of why people preserved these parts of history—for the purpose of innovation. I definitely agree with this idea that the past heavily influences future discoveries and encourages us to continually produce new mechanisms to facilitate all different aspects of life and to prevent the failures of history from repeating themselves. The surgical kit, like you mentioned, represents this idea well since by analyzing the errors with wooden handles of the tools, better tools were able to be produced that decrease or even eliminate the spread of disease. This makes me question how far medical technology can be developed, since we view these tools from less than two centuries ago as crude, will researchers two centuries in the future view our present medical technology as rudimentary as well? Finally, your description of the whole trip as a “humbling experience” resonated with me after you explained it. I recognized how it was actually a really humbling experience being able to see how far medical technology has come and how science and technology are constantly evolving to become better than ever before.


  2. Hi Deborah! I found it really interesting that you began your blog post by mentioning how the archives can be a reminder of past accomplishments. I agree that it is easy to be so focused on progress and future improvements that we often fail to appreciate the foundational research we are building upon. This semester I’m involved in a research project, and though my team and I are experimenting with new ideas, we are also consulting lab notebooks organized by previous teams to guide us in the right direction. Your analysis of the archives has really made me appreciate the resources that we have available to use. I also believe we have a lot we can learn from archives even though they may seem obsolete at first.

    I was also really impressed by your knowledge and passion for cardiovascular surgery. It’s really interesting to see how archives can be analyzed from so many different perspectives depending on the background of the researcher. While Dr. Cooley is only familiar to me as the surgeon who completed the first artificial heart transplant, your knowledge about the dangers of DHCA surgery was very intriguing and opens up so many new lenses through which we can view the archival material.


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