Public Access, Outreach, and Health

DailyDose_PosterMedicine is not practiced in a vacuum; cultural and geographical context matter, and the community shapes both innovation and practice. Cleveland’s history reveals the remarkable collaboration of medical institutions and the public—it does not rest only in the hands of physicians or with distant hospital systems. Now, as then, health is everyone’s concern. But how do we engage the public? And how can we make it plain that the public has rights–and power–to shape medicine? Historically, individuals had a greater share in shaping their care out of necessity. The Dittrick Museum’s collection of herbals and medical remedies is a testament to just how much people took health into their own hands. Dr. Culpepper’s Last Legacy (1655) contains prescriptions for do-it-yourself potions [from our instagram]: Untitled-1Obviously, we are not mixing witches’ brew these days, and certainly no doctor or pharmaceutical company is going to publish recipes for homemade medicine. Then again, a resurgence in homeopathy and plenty of websites that promote home-remedies suggest that there is an audience…And a quick scan reveals plenty of misinformation, too. How can an interested public find good information about their health and health choices? Whose responsibility is it to make access to care, and even information about care, easier and more intuitive? The patient often does not feel like an empowered part of the medical process. A few years ago, The Atlantic published a piece called “Power to the Patients” that took issue with the traditional doctor knows best mantra: “it is only by empowering patients – entrusting them with greater responsibility and putting opportunities for self-directed care into their hands – that health care can be made significantly more efficient and effective.” [1] But, the article goes on to admit, sorting out how you can be empowered in the midst of a health crisis is probably too late. Let’s take it a step further: do healthy people feel empowered about their health? Do they understand that they are stake-holders? Possibly not. The New York Academy of Medicine is taking a community approach to this problem. They have a renewed dedication to “urban health,” and seek to address the broader determinants of health, and “the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to care.” Their new logo sports the phrase: Healthy Cities. Better Lives. It’s not a new idea. It’s a return to an old idea–one that thrived in cities of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Cleveland, Ohio, is one brilliant example. Polio hit urban centers hard,  leaving debilitated children in its wake. The iron lung could keep people alive, but the world needed a vaccine, and then a systematic way of implementing vaccination protocols. A combined effort of doctors, philanthropists, the media, and everyday people led to record-breaking changes. Salk’s vaccine dropped cases by 90% by 1962 in Cleveland, and led to the eradication of the disease in the rest of the US. Public awareness and empowerment did what laboratory medicine could never hope to achieve on  its own. Community engagement, public empowerment, and (key in the polio crisis) access to care and information wins the day. And that returns us to the first question. How do we engage and educate the public? Whose job is it?

The short answer: it’s everyone’s job. But I want to take a moment and focus on the power of history.  Museums and libraries–and institutions generally–have an important role to play. To address misunderstandings about medicine, and crucially about who controls or drives innovation, the Dittrick has developed an interactive, digital exhibit and attendant programming called How Medicine Became Modern. The exhibit will be a free-standing digital touch-screen wall, 10ft x 4ft, in the main gallery, providing the story of our shared medical past and cultivating means of seeing the relationships among culture, society, and health. But we have also begun two types of public outreach as well–“conversations” that begin with the history, then allow panels and round tables to discuss medicine today. The story of polio and others like it remind us: we are part of this story. History records more than the names of famous doctors. It demonstrates the innovation, the boldness, the concern, and the action of every day citizens. Medical humanities, or health and humanities, is all about the human story at the core. Let’s work together to bring that story out, and to be part of it. [1] Clayton M. Christensen and Jason Hwang. “Power to the Patients” The Atlantic 2009

MedHum Monday: The Becker Library and Increased Visibility

DailyDose_PosterHello and welcome to this week’s MedHum Monday post on The Daily Dose! Today we are joined by Elisabeth Brander of the Bernard Becker Medical Library at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine. The Becker Library shares its beautiful collections with students, through annual events, and more recently, social media. Welcome, Elisabeth!


The Bernard Becker Medical Library is the library of the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine.  Its rare book holdings consist of nine distinct collections, which cover some five hundred years of medical history.  Many of these collections are very cross-disciplinary in nature, and have a great deal of value to students and scholars working in the humanities as well as those in the medical field.  One of our challenges is making both groups aware that we are a resource that is available to them, and so we’re exploring a variety of ways to increase our visibility.

Having a strong working relationship with faculty interested in the medical humanities is very important for us.  Washington University faculty teaching in the History, Art History, and Gender and Sexuality departments bring their undergraduate classes to the Becker Library each year, and we provide show-and-tell sessions with rare medical texts that are related to their course readings.  We’ve hosted similar sessions for classes from the History and English departments at Saint Louis University, and the St. Louis College of Pharmacy.  Some of the professors come regularly each year, but we’ve found that it’s worthwhile to check the course listings each semester to see if there any offerings that might benefit from a visit to our rare book room – last year we found a course being offered through the University College on the subject of Medicine and Magic, and were able to arrange an evening class visit for the students to look at selections from our Paracelsus collection.

A selection of books from the Robert E. Schleuter Paracelsus Collection
A selection of books from the Robert E. Schleuter Paracelsus Collection

We’re also fortunate to have faculty at the medical school who appreciate our collections and want to expose the medical students to them.  The Center for History of Medicine, which is located within the medical library one floor below Archives and Rare Books, teaches elective courses for first year medical students on various aspects of medical history – in recent years topics have included the history of anatomy and the connections between medicine and war – and interacting with the historic collections is a central part of the students’ experience. Each class session begins with a display of rare books and historic documents and photographs, and the student evaluations always say that the chance to see and handle these materials is a highlight of the course.  We also put on a large display of our anatomical atlases each year either in November or December.  The professors of anatomy at the medical school strongly encourage their first year students to attend, but the event is open to everyone and attendance for the past two years has been very good.

A display of rare books for a visit by first-year medical students
A display of rare books for a visit by first-year medical students

While classes are a significant part of our outreach program, they are not our only means of reaching an audience.  Each year we co-sponsor the Historia Medica lecture series with the Center for History of Medicine.  The speakers consist of a mixture of historians and physicians both from Washington University and other institutions, and the topics are very diverse – this past year we had talks on early blood transfusion, Masters and Johnson’s research on sexuality, and William Stoker’s interest in neuroscience.  This coming February we’re also planning on something a bit bigger.  In celebration of Andreas Vesalius’ 500th birthday, Washington University will be co-hosting an academic symposium with Saint Louis University. The library’s collections include two 1543 editions of Vesalius’ Fabrica, one 1555 edition, and several publications by his contemporaries such as Colombo and Valverde; and we’re hoping to use the symposium as an opportunity to really showcase our holdings.  We’re going to be putting on an exhibit in our Glaser Gallery that will run throughout the event, and smaller breakout sessions will give attendees the opportunity to see our collections in a more intimate setting.

A letter from the William Beaumont papers held at the Becker Library
A letter from the William Beaumont papers held at the Becker Library

We’re also starting to experiment with social media.  We’ve recently set up accounts on Twitter and Tumblr (@beckerrarebooks and beckerrarebooks.tumblr.com), and staff members working in Archives and Rare Books are also frequent contributors to the library’s blogging platform, Becker Briefs.  We’re hoping that this will help boost our online profile and reach a broader general audience.  We’re just starting out so it’s hard to say how effective it will be, but we’re cautiously optimistic!

About the Author
Elisabeth Brander is the Rare Book Librarian at the Becker Medical Library. She studied library science and early modern history at the University of Maryland, then spent a year working with the archival backlog of the National Park Service. She has been with the medical library for two years, and is happily learning as much as she can about the history of medicine; fortunately she has an abundance of primary source materials to consult.