There is something about the physical manifestations of history that communicate both intellectual heft and inspirational authority. Which is why Longwood’s Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine — the largest academic medical library in the nation — has launched a new campaign to ensure that the artifacts in its vast collection are brought to light, rather than locked away in a dusty basement archive.
“The Medical School laid out a challenge: to reimagine the library as an information institute that would again become a vibrant resource for knowledge management where people could collaborate on different projects,” said Isaac Kohane, a pediatric endocrinologist with a Ph.D. in computer science and director of the Countway since October. “When I arrived at the Countway, the Hyams collection of rare Hebraic literature had just been curated, with documents going back to the 13th century. Over time, I developed an increasing awareness that I could help to share this jewel beyond the world of dedicated scholars and the relatively small stream of visitors to the library.”
One step toward doing just that — not only for the Hyams collection but for others as well — is to revamp the library’s electronic resources, a gargantuan task already under way. Another is a series of symposia and events organized by Kohane, the first of which, “The Role of Jews in the History of Medicine,” was held March 1.
The conference began with remarks from Kohane and Allan M. Brandt, a professor of the history of medicine in the Department of Social Medicine and of the history of science at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), who noted that “the Hyams exhibit represents only a thin but exceptional slice of the remarkable materials that the Countway has for scholars across many, many fields in the humanities.”
The day’s first speaker, Joseph Shatzmiller, a historian from Duke University, provided context by recounting common medieval treatments and the complex legalities already developing around medicine by the early 14th century. He described documents recording accusations of negligence against Jewish doctors and the physicians’ efforts to defend themselves with appeals to the judicial system in the form of patient waivers and notarized prognoses. “These practitioners knew the value of their service,” he concluded. “These legal tactics indicate a standard of professionalism.” Given the generally unsanitary conditions, the crude procedures, and the insufficient anesthetics, he added, more patients than one might imagine were actually cured.