Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Objects of our afflictions

A hand-drawn arrow shows the trajectory of the bullet that passed through Private Ludwig Kohn in this detail of a Civil War surgical card. These cards, from the Army Medical Museum, Surgeon General's Office, document Union army doctors’ most interesting cases.

By Mary Loftus, Emory Magazine

The US National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland, began in 1836 as a shelf of books in the Office of the Surgeon General and evolved to become the largest biomedical library in the world, concurrently housing millions of physical items and serving electronic data to millions of online users around the world.

An x-ray of Hitler's skull.
“My fantasy holiday,” writer Mary Roach, author of the books "Stiff," "Spook" and "Bonk" has said, “is a week spent locked in the archives of the National Library of Medicine.”

Jeff Reznick, who received his PhD in history from Emory in 1999, is chief of the library’s History of Medicine division. He serves as a steward of some of the medical library’s rarest, oldest, and yes, quirkiest items – from palmistry guides to Civil War surgical cards to the first published illustration of Watson and Crick’s double helix.

“We’re not a lending library in the traditional sense,” Reznick explains, “but a contemporary research institution that is home to an amazing historical collection as well as an extensive exhibition program.”

The collections contain medieval manuscripts, rare first editions, silent films, paintings, photographs, postcards, lantern slides, original drawings, hospital records, and laboratory notebooks—17 million artifacts that range from the famous to the obscure, the sublime to the repulsive.

A cuttlefish, valued for its "bone," which could be ground up to make a tooth powder, from the pages of "Materia Medica Animalia" a rare 1853 book.

A selection of the library’s most captivating artifacts is highlighted in the newly published "Hidden Treasure," edited by Reznick’s colleague and library historian Michael Sappol. The coffee-table book is filled with 450 vivid illustrations and essays. Within its pages are sketches of conjoined twins, Hitler’s x-rays, autopsy illustrations, midwife dolls, Darwin’s sketches, a grand atlas of skin diseases, public health warning cards, and malaria pinup calendars. "Hidden Treasure" is available free as a downloadable e-copy at http://collections.nlm.nih.gov/HiddenTreasure, or as a hardbound book.

A review in The Lancet reads, “Each selection is truly intriguing and informative, reminding us that medicine is inherently connected to the human experience and all of its attendant complexities. As the images show, there are few, if any, areas of life that medicine does not affect.”

A young boy displaying Hirsutism, increased growth of facial hair, from the 1856 "Atlas of Skin Diseases."

The book’s introduction, cowritten by Reznick, notes: “These are things that are not entirely reducible to ‘information,’ that are only partly susceptible to digitization. They have a feel and texture and smell and color; they are strong or brittle, clean or dusty; they have been taken from place to place, bought or sold or bartered or stolen or issued or given away as gifts. They have been treasured or neglected, defaced or mended, added to or pruned back. Each object has lived a ‘social life,’ sometimes several lives.”

A 19th-century lantern slide.
Emory Professor of English Benjamin Reiss, author of "Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture," says the library contains “an extraordinary collection and is underused as a scholarly resource.”

Reiss was invited to contribute an essay for "Hidden Treasure" on a set of magic lantern slides that were exhibited to mental patients in a 19th-century insane asylum. “The assignment led me on a really interesting historical detective mission, trying to figure out who made the slides, what the exhibits were like, and what role the exhibits played in the treatment of patients,” he says.

He found that many of the slides were part of patients’ “moral treatment,” meant to impress rational, orderly imagery—such as snowflakes—upon their minds, while others, such as a giant flea attacking a man in a chair, were for entertainment.

“Given that many patients were delusional and/or medicated with dream-inducing opiates, one wonders about the wisdom of serving up these ready-made hallucinations, magnified to terrifying proportions,” Reiss writes.

The rare book that changed medicine

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