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 However, through our guide, archivist Sandra Yates, I learned that an archive is a place that stores and preserves unpublished works that can be easily accessed and interacted with.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of the McGovern Historical Center gave me my first opportunity to touch real surgical instruments, even if they were outdated.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.

Archives: Mission (Initially) Unknown

While driving to the McGovern Historical Center, my thoughts were both wild and restrained. I wondered about the layout, age, and purpose of an archive as I tried to recall fragments of information that I had learned over the years. Still, my musing remained grounded in the notion that an archive was a mix of a library and museum. Even after entering the mundane building and observing the lounge area, I still could not discern what made archives unique. Fortunately, our guide, Sandra Yates, allowed us to enter the storage room where the stacks were kept.

Ms. Yates explained that an archive was a collection of many different types of materials, including anything from books to architectural designs, cassettes, and even actual surgical equipment. I learned that archives are for specific topics. For example, the McGovern Historical Center handles materials related to health and medicine. Moreover, the material is unpublished work that is donated by individuals or organizations, which means that every archive is unique.

As our group concluded the tour, we were allowed to view and engage with specific materials on the table. Because my group’s project wasn’t available, I gravitated towards something similar: a 17th century anatomy book. The book was written in German; sifting through the centuries-old pages, I saw many diagrams and illustrations that depicted body parts. Truthfully, I would not have known that it was an anatomy book except for the label because the illustrations hardly seemed to represent an actual body. I came to a conclusion at that point. An archive’s primary function wasn’t to provide factual knowledge like museums do. Instead, researchers use archives to analyze the trends, changes, or transformations of human knowledge.




Take the surgical tool pictured above. It is a 16th century device, and the McGovern Center had a similar one except that the handle was made of wood. Right beside this tool was a book with pictures of improved tools. The archivists even allowed us to hold and touch the surgical tools, which is an experience that one looking at pictures simply can’t attain. As our guide explained, the problem with the wooden handle was that blood became easily trapped inside, making it hard to clean the equipment. Only being able to observe either the tool or the equipment pictures would be interesting, but it would not be useful. By viewing both, researchers can extrapolate how attitudes toward hygiene and sanitation changed and manifested themselves in equipment. The detailed and varied materials of the archive allow researchers to amplify the knowledge gained from the two sources alone.

Exiting the building, I walked away with much more appreciation and understanding of the purpose of an archive. The careful preservation and sheer amount of detailed information may never be fully analyzed, but the fact that it is available and accessible ensures that one looking for such materials can find them. The specificity, historical value, and accessibility of archival materials can be matched neither by a library nor a museum.



WikiMedia Commons,,_16th_century._Wellcome_L0011386.jpg#file. Accessed September 2016.


Blog Prompt for Week 3

For your blog prompt this week, describe and analyze your first trip to the archive at the McGovern Historical Center. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • What was the experience like visiting the archive?
  • What did you expect before visiting the archive? To what extent did your visit meet your expectations? How did your expectations shape your visit?
  • What did you find surprising, confusing, compelling, etc.? Why?
  • What did you learn about the archive, archival research, etc.?
  • What was your experience like handling archival materials?
    • Which items did you gravitate toward first? Why?
    • Which items did you find the most/least compelling? Why?
    • Which items seemed most accessible, and which items intimidated you the most? Why?

While not all of your project materials were available yesterday, reflect on the materials that were there and your experiences with them and the archive as a whole. Treat the above questions as prompts to jumpstart your thinking. You won’t be able to answer all of them in a coherent post. Finally, review the blog post guidelines to make sure that you understand my expectations before you start writing.

Happy blogging!