History Center Seeks to Expand Its Reach
On the lower level of Countway Library is a trove of medical history. The Center for the History of Medicine is regarded as having one of the most extensive collections of rare books, personal papers, and archives in the world. They are available for any researcher to use. The center’s holdings also include the Warren Anatomical Museum’s 15,000 artifacts, perhaps the most popular among them being the skull of Phineas Gage, along with the tamping iron that brought him misfortune and fame.
Not all the center’s collections get as much attention as Phineas, however, which is something director Scott Podolsky, who joined the center last December, would like to change. One of his priorities is to bring the center’s manuscripts and archives out of the basement, metaphorically speaking.
Of particular interest are the manuscripts and personal papers of physicians and scientists that have been donated to the center. “Of these tremendous manuscript collections that we have, and we have over 900 written manuscript collections … most of those are relatively invisible to researchers and clinicians,” said Podolsky, who is a member of the HMS Social Medicine Department and an internist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
One way the center intends to raise its visibility is by going digital. A high-priority project is to increase the number of “finding aids” online, which alert researchers to items in the center’s collection when they type relevant terms into a search engine. Researchers then know where to find potentially useful materials at the Countway that they may not have known existed.
Podolsky is also approaching current faculty on the Quad and at the affiliated hospitals about donating their personal papers to the center.
“Usually what happens if I e-mail a faculty member and say, ‘I’d love to have your personal papers,’ they think I want their reprints, which is exactly what I don’t need,” said Podolsky. “We want the personal correspondence, the professional correspondence, the laboratory notebooks, the unpublished essays, to really get at how either science or medicine is happening in the real world.”
Another part of the project is scanning in books so that the actual content is available online. Not only does this make the center’s holdings more accessible, said Podolsky, but it also preserves the fragile pages of rare books, many of which are being included in the Harvard University Open Collections Program.
The center’s staff is also reaching out to HMS departments and committees and advising them on how to store papers and materials for short-term use, and telling them how to take advantage of the center’s archives for historical use, which serve as a repository for archive-worthy HMS-related materials.
Though Podolsky has been with the center for only six months, he has long been familiar with its offerings. He received his undergraduate degree in history and science at Harvard University and went on to receive his medical degree from HMS, while still maintaining an interest in medical history.
“I felt that the history of medicine could inform how to take care of patients, and I felt that patient care could generate some of the various issues that would drive my historical research,” he said. He made use of the center’s Max Finland archives, which comprise about 80 boxes of materials, while cowriting a book on early pneumonia treatment, which he began during his residency and finished last year. Currently, Podolsky is working on a book on the history of antibiotic use over the last 50 years, for which he is again immersed in the Finland archives.