My First Hands-on Interaction With Medicinal History

As someone who had never been to an archive before, I thought that an archive would be an extremely formal, museum-like place full of old materials. Because of my preconceived notion of what I thought an archive would be, I merely expected an informational tour around the archives with not much interaction with the works that were being stored there. However, through our guide, archivist Sandra Yates, I learned that an archive is a place that stores and preserves unpublished works that can be easily accessed and interacted with. Even though there still is a formal attitude that must be maintained in order to respect the works in the archives, the atmosphere of the archives was a little more informal in the sense that the works there could be touched.

During my visit to the archives, I was most surprised at the fact that the items at the archives could be touched. This interesting characteristic of the McGovern Historical Center gave me my first opportunity to touch real surgical instruments, even if they were outdated. At the archives, we were able to pick up and observe each instrument in a surgical kit that was used from 1850-1880 before the germ theory of disease existed. Instead of stainless steel or any kind of metal for the handles, the surgical instruments’ handles in this kit were made out of wood. As a result, blood often seeped into the handles of the instruments, creating a home for infection and unsanitary buildup. Another work that caught my eye was the article from the Medical World News that was published on October 4, 1968. The article’s elaboration on Cooley’s step-by-step transplant film was enthralling because I was able to see pictures and read about the procedure in such detail. Also, after asking Sandra more about the transplant surgery, I learned that the McGovern Historical Center has the actual footage of the surgery itself, which was an even bigger surprise.


Surgical Kit used from 1850-1880 (photo taken at the McGovern Historical Center)

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Article from Medical World News about Cooley’s step-by-step heart transplant (photo taken at the McGovern Historical Center)

Being able to see works from centuries ago all the way up to modern day confined into one big space was fascinating. Through our class visit to the McGovern Historical Center, I was able to see how medicine and its history have changed over the years due to improving technology and constant research by scientists- an example being the surgical kit. Now, I know that archives are more than just a library full of information that can only be accessed from afar. Instead, I know that archives serve as an interactive exhibit for observers to be able to learn more as they interact with the different works that are stored in the archives.


2 thoughts on “My First Hands-on Interaction With Medicinal History

  1. Looking through all of the blog post recounting our time at the archive, I find it really interesting that many of us wrote about the incorrect expectation that we would not be about to touch any of the materials, especially the medical instruments. It calls me to question our relationship with history and relics, especially relics that we know have been/are capable of great suffering. Hesitation to touch the instrument did not come out of the fear of breaking them, but rather the fear of the history held within such instrument. This idea is particularly pouwerful in a setting holding such vast historical materials, as was the archive.


  2. Hi Hannah! I really enjoyed reading about your experience at the archive and in particular how you “interacted” with it. The fact that the archived materials are not “museum-like” materials but are rather “interactive” reminded me of Adler’s How to Mark a Book. On the first day of class, you pointed out that one of Adler’s main arguments is that we need to have a “conversation between [the reader] and the author” (Adler 2). Perhaps the same idea can be applied to the archived medical news magazines and surgical kits from decades ago. There is a unique conversation that can be made between us and the doctors and scientists from the 60’s. As aspiring scientists of the 21st century, our perspectives are built on the basic knowledge of germ theory and most innovative approaches to cardiac transplants.
    For example, like a “learner… question[s] himself and question[s] the teacher”, we strive to understand the technical aspects of the tools on war grounds decades ago, but also to argue the flaws of the wooden handle with our background knowledge of transmission of blood-borne diseases (2). Once we “understand what the teacher is saying”– which, in this case, may be the surgical anastomoses for the artificial heart transplant, we “argue with the teacher”, or, argue the risks from hyperactive immune response in such a total artificial heart transplant. In other words, the interaction that we had with the archive was beyond the surface level of being able to physically handle the materials. Rather, we were able to have a “two-way operation”, conversing with the decade old materials with what we know now. I think that it is when this conversation is made that we fully realize and are humbled by the scientific advancements we’ve made, as you have mentioned. In such ways, the field trip was ultimately an opportunity to realize the reason why archives are important: because, no matter how “old” they are, we can converse with them and learn from them.


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