Posts tagged: medical education

Finding One’s Path on the Road of Research: An Intern’s Journey

By , December 5, 2017

Nina Rodwin, UMass Boston Public History Student

Nina Rodwin is a second-year UMass Boston public history graduate student. Her interest is late 19th-century American history, with a specific focus on women’s history and medical history.  She is currently an intern at the Center for the History of Medicine.

When I started my internship at Harvard’s Countway Library of Medicine, my project adviser, Joan Ilacqua, project archivist for the Archives for Women in Medicine, and I decided to investigate digitized journals between 1900 and 1920 from the Medical Heritage Library’s State Medical Society Journals project to uncover the effects of the 1910 Flexner Report on women’s medical education. The goal of the project was to create a digital exhibit about the state of medical education before and after the Flexner Report to better understand how women medical students and physicians were influenced by Flexner’s recommendations. However, as I conducted my research, I found that this topic connected to multiple issues beyond the question of women’s education in the medical field. These new avenues opened the exhibit to larger questions regarding sex, class, gender, and race during the early 20th century.

In 1908, Professor Abraham Flexner was hired by the Council on Medical Education, (a branch of the American Medical Association) to travel to each American medical school and evaluate the overall institution; from  curriculum, to the number of faculty, to the condition of laboratories and libraries. Flexner’s findings were unnerving and the quality of medical schools varied wildly. Flexner recommended that schools with financial means should emulate the quality of education seen at Johns Hopkins University, one of the first medical schools affiliated with a teaching hospital that also required laboratory experience for all its students. Flexner strongly recommended that schools which could not afford such expensive upgrades be closed.

Modern analysis of the Flexner report shows that his decisions meant that most women’s and Black medical schools were closed, as these institutions often had fewer funds. While medical students in the early 20th century were more likely to learn the latest medical techniques from prestigious institutions, many women and Black medical students were barred from these opportunities, as many schools (including Harvard) openly refused to admit them or admitted them in minuscule numbers. When I began this project, I assumed that these issues would be reflected and discussed in the state medical journals of the time.

I imagined discovering blustering editorials, where the authors would be offended at the very the idea of women entering the medical field. However, I struggled to find any editorial that even mentioned women, yet alone any that excoriated them for being in the field. I found many articles and editorials that dryly reported the progress of medical education and criticized the Flexner Report for its negative conclusions, but none discussed what these changes would mean for women medical students.

Finding little evidence connecting the Flexner Report to women’s education in medical schools was particularly important– it demonstrated that many physicians in the early 20th century were no longer outraged by the idea of women practicing medicine. The research showed that the question for women physicians in the early 20th century was not a debate surrounding their abilities or rights to practice medicine, but was rather a debate surrounding which kinds of medical fields were best suited for women.

The Woman’s Medical Journal, Vol. XV, No. 4. April 1905.

In fact, women physicians during the early 1900s went to great efforts to prove sex discrimination was a relic of the past. This belief however, was often countered by their own experiences, as seen in editorials from The Woman’s Medical Journal. These editorials were especially interesting when compared with editorials from state medical journals, as both used cultural ideas about women, motherhood, and women’s natural abilities to argue for or against women in certain fields. As my research progressed, I was especially drawn to the differences between the Women’s Medical Journal (WMJ) and the Pennsylvania Medical Journal. (PMJ) While both journals contained medical articles, the WMJ also had a social justice slant, advocating for women’s medical education across the world, endorsing a woman’s right to vote, and demonstrating that women physicians were just as capable as their male counterparts. Both journals portrayed women in the medical field, but PMJ often emphasized traditional ideas about a “women’s place.” For example, there are many articles in the PMJ, including this toast given in 1907, about the self-sacrificing wives of male physicians, but no mention of the struggle women physicians faced balancing their social, professional and domestic roles.

Caption from “The Doctor’s Wife,” a speech given by H.J. Bell, MD in 1907.

My research found that the fields of anesthesiology and lab work were seen as ideal place for women physicians. Public health was especially popular for women physicians, as its focus on the household, parenting, dieting, and children’s health were considered extensions of a woman’s natural role as caretaker and mother. However, white women physicians in the field of public health in the early 20th century often advocated for eugenic practices, including limiting marriages to those considered “fit” and the sterilization of those considered “unfit.” So as white women advocated for equality in the medical field, they also encouraged policies that targeted and discriminated women from marginalized groups. While this topic is quite disturbing, I have found this section of my research the most interesting, as the concepts advocating for White Supremacy are very similar both in the early 20th century and today.

I believe that making historical connections to modern events can be a great tool to help connect today’s audiences to the past. The issue of discrimination against women in the workplace is still very relevant today, especially in the medical field. The decisions made by the Flexner Report still affect medical education today. Although women’s enrollment in medical schools was almost evenly split with men in 2016, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), and rates of minority student enrollment has increased over time, Latino and Black students only comprise 20% of incoming medical students nationwide although these statistics do not break down minority applicants by gender.  Furthermore, women in the workforce still struggle with societal expectations of motherhood and marriage, making the balance between their personal lives and professional lives much harder. Although my research evolved from a project specifically on the Flexner Report to an analysis of women in medicine in the early 20th century, I hope my forthcoming exhibit can shed light on how far women have come, while reminding my audience that many obstacles remain. I look forward to completing the internship and presenting my findings.



Video Now Online: “Anatomy and its Legacies: Artistic, Ethical, Scientific”

By , December 3, 2014

On October 15, 2014, The Center for the History of Medicine together with the Ackerman Program on Medicine and Culture presented “Anatomy and its Legacies: Artistic, Ethical, Scientific.” A recording of that talk is now available online!

Anatomists throughout history have worked to discover new angles of approach to the human body in order to reach the fullest understanding of its complexities. In this symposium, our four speakers endeavor to do the same, coming from different perspectives to examine the complex history of anatomical study. Join us as we examine anatomy through the lenses of ethics, art, and science.

(0:00:00) “Teachings of the Dead: The Archaeology of Anatomized Remains from Holden Chapel, Harvard University”

Christina J. Hodge
Academic Curator and Collections Manager of the Stanford University Archaeology Collections, and Museum Associate at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University
Michele E. Morgan
Museum Curator of Osteology and Paleoanthropology & Senior Osteologist at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University

(0:38:18) “A Collaborative Endeavor: Oscar Wallis & Henry Jacob Bigelow’s Anatomical Teaching Illustrations”
Naomi Slipp
2014-15 Barra Foundation Fellow in American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and PhD candidate in the Department of the History of Art & Architecture at Boston University

(1:07:33) “Ethical transgressions in anatomy during the Third Reich: The Pernkopf story”
Sabine Hildebrandt
Assistant Professor in the Department of General Pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital, and Lecturer on Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School



The (Medical) Education of Charles Miller Fisher

By , February 15, 2014

Glass plate negative of a brain section.

Staff at the Center for the History of Medicine are completing the processing of the papers of Charles Miller Fisher (1913-2012), a noted neurologist. The collection reflects Fisher’s activities as a practicing physician and neurological researcher.

Fisher attended medical school at Victoria University and the University of Toronto Medical  School. He entered Victoria University straight from high school; the medical degree tracks required no intervening BA or BS degrees. There were two options for students wanting to study medicine: Straight Medicine and Biology and Medicine. The former had a six year course, the latter, a seven year, including special instruction in science and the arts. Fisher entered the Biology and Medicine track with 25 other young men. According to Fisher’s recollections, the Straight Medicine track attracted more students: 120 men and 20 women at his matriculation.

The Biology and Medicine course (Fisher refers to it as “B and M” in his memoirs) included both pre-clinical and clinical work. Looking back, Fisher remembers particularly vividly the coursework in physics and anatomy: “The students’ nemesis was the practical examination when 100 human anatomical specimens of various kinds were laid out in orderly fashion on long tables and in an equally long procession the students advanced from specimen to specimen being given 60 seconds to answer the question posed…”

Fisher received a B.A. from Victoria University in Toronto in 1935 and his M.D. from the University of Toronto Medical School in 1938. He was born in Ontario and returned to Canada during the early years of his career; in 1954, he took a teaching post at Harvard Medical School and joined the neurology service at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Fisher spent the next half century at MGH and Harvard University, where he created and led the first formal Stroke Service. When Charles Miller Fisher, M.D., died on April 14, 2012, his obituary in JAMA Neurology reported that “the field of neurology lost one of its 20th century giants.”

The Charles M. Fisher papers will be open to researchers later this spring.


Cyrus H. Fiske Papers Open to Research

By , August 14, 2012
"Phosphocreatine", by Cyrus Hartwell Fiske and Yellapragada Subbarow, 1929.

"Phosphocreatine", by Cyrus H. Fiske and Yellapragada Subbarow, 1929, H MS c387. From the Harvard Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.

The Center for the History of Medicine is pleased to announce the opening of the Cyrus H. Fiske papers, 1908-1971.

View the online finding aid for the Cyrus H. Fiske papers.

Fiske (1890-1978) was Professor of Biological Chemistry Emeritus at Harvard Medical School and Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at Western Reserve University Medical School in Cleveland, Ohio.  Fiske’s research focused on determining the chemical composition of living tissues, including blood, the liver, the spleen, and the pancreas.  With Yellapragada Subbarow (1895-1948), he is credited with developing the colorimetric method for the estimation of phosphorus in solutions in 1925, and with discovering, isolating, and describing two chemical compounds involved in muscle metabolism: phosphocreatine in 1927 and adenosine triphosphate in 1929.

Fiske’s papers are the product of his research and professional activities throughout his tenure at Harvard Medical School as Assistant in Biological Chemistry, Assistant Professor of Biological Chemistry, and Professor of Biological Chemistry; and at Western Reserve University Medical School as Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Assistant Professor of Biochemistry.

The bulk of the papers consist of:

  • research notes and related correspondence concerning various areas of biological chemistry, notably adenosine triphosphate, liver, pernicious anemia, and phosphocreatine;
  • correspondence regarding Fiske’s involvement in professional societies; indices to scientific papers relevant to Fiske’s work;
  • lectures and examination questions prepared by Fiske for his teaching appointments at Harvard Medical School and student work; and
  • personal correspondence with friends and colleagues.

Papers also include:

  • collected publications and newspaper clippings concerning Fiske’s research topics, general scientific and technological developments, and advertisements for laboratory equipment and supplies;
  • reprints of Fiske’s scientific papers;
  • collected audio recordings of three scientific talks; and
  • a research notebook recorded in 1926 by Fiske’s research partner, Yellapragada Subbarow.

Processing of the collection was supported by the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine’s Charles S. Minot Fund for Hematology.  The finding aid is available online.

December 2: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Medical Education, and the Spirit of Skepticism

By , November 28, 2011

Scott H.Podolsky, M.D., Director, Center for the History of Medicine, will present “Oliver Wendell Holmes and the Spirit of Skepticism,”  at Medical Education Grand Rounds, December 2, 2011, 7:30 to 9:00 AM, MEC 250.

RSVP required.

Oliver Wendell Holmes spent large parts of the nineteenth century as America’s best-known physician and one of its best-selling authors, famous for both his therapeutic skepticism and literary iconoclasm.  He was also dean of Harvard Medical School during a brief but tumultuous period of its development, and HMS’ most beloved lecturer for many more decades.  Dr. Podolsky will discuss the fundamental skepticism that imbued Dr. Holmes’ entwined medical, literary, and philosophical pursuits, and their impact upon medical education and medical thinking at HMS and beyond, both during and after his lifetime.

Dr. Podolsky is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Medicine and a primary care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. Since 2006, he has served as the Director of the Center for the History of Medicine based at the Countway Medical Library. He has co-authored Generation of Diversity: Clonal Selection Theory and the Rise of Molecular Immunology (1997), authored Pneumonia before Antibiotics: Therapeutic Evolution and Evaluation in Twentieth-Century America (2006), and co-edited Oliver Wendell Holmes: Physician and Man of Letters (2009). His current research, concerning the history of antibiotics over the past half-century, looks at evolving interactions among physicians, patients, pharmaceutical companies, governmental agencies, and therapeutic reformers throughout this period.

An American Medical Student in Germany, 1929-1934

By , October 15, 2010
First Page of Letter

First page of letter from Chase to Morrison, May 23, 1930

While processing the papers of Dr. Hyman Morrison (1881-1963), staff at the Center for the History of Medicine found a cache of letters sent to Dr. Morrison by a student studying medicine in Germany between 1929 and 1934. Dr. Morrision had a wide personal and professional correspondence and kept in touch with students, patients, and other doctors often for many years.

The student, Louis Chase, moved between Berlin and Munich, beginning and ending his German medical education in Berlin in 1929 and 1934. During his time in Europe, Chase travelled through Germany, Austria, and Hungary, visiting Vienna, Budapest, and Sofia where, according to his letters, he hated the food but loved the music. He hoped to return to the United States and study at Tufts Medical School – soliciting a recommendation from Dr. Morrison – but was not accepted.

Chase was extremely adept at recognizing and commenting on contemporary German political rhetoric and noticing the tensions and potential for tensions between native German and “foreign,” often Jewish American, students at the unversities in Berlin and Munich. In December 1930, for instance, Chase wrote of an influx of American students: “Of the newcomers to Berlin, all are Jewish, with the exception of one Harvard negro—two or three from Boston, many from New York and its immediate vicinity.  … Actually there have taken place a number of disagreements, happily only verbal, among the students; a protest against the ‘incessant, loud English-speaking carried on in the Anatomy laboratories’ has already been filed by some reactionary native students.”

Chase recounted stories of Nazi rallies – street marches against the release of the film of All Quiet on the Western Front – and sent Nazi propaganda back to Dr. Morrison as items of interest, noting that the leaflet he sent on was a mild example of the type and promising to send something more inflammatory next time. Chase’s last letter, dated July 20, 1934 from Berlin, discusses his plans to take the German state medical examinations and collect a “basketful” of recommendations from his professors in Germany to ensure his medical career before returning to America.

Chase’s letters are a window to pre-World War II Germany, with Chase offering commentary on the development of the nationalist movement in Germany, the rise of the National Socialist party, and the popularity of Hitlerite politics as well as on the differences between American and German medical education.

Hyman Morrison was a visiting physician at Beth Israel Hospital, Boston, a clinical professor of medicine at Tufts College Medical School (now Tufts University School of Medicine) in Medford, Massachusetts, and Chief of Medicine at Boston State Hospital, Massachusetts. Morrison’s research included extensive work contesting the diagnosis of “Hebraic debility,” tuberculosis of the appendix, and the life and work of physicians Reginald Heber Fitz (1843-1913) and Thomas Hodgkin (1798-1866). He was born in October 1881 in Vilna, Russia. He emigrated with his family to the United States in 1893. Morrison attended English High School in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, and, after graduation, was accepted to Harvard University. He received an A.B. degree with high distinction from Harvard University in 1905 and his M.D. from Harvard Medical School in 1908.

The Hyman Morrsion Papers were the gift of his grandchildren, Ruth Smullin and Joseph Spivack. Preparation of the collection for research access was funded by Peter Tishler, M.D. and the work completed by Hanna Clutterbuck. The full guide to the collection can be viewed at

Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in America, 1880-1930 April 7, 2010, 5:30

By , March 11, 2010


April 7, 2010, 5:30 PM
The Center for the History of Medicine at the Countway Library of Medicine invites you to attend a lecture to celebrate the opening of the exhibit:

Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in America, 1880-1930

From the advent of photography in the 19th century and into the 20th century, medical students, often in secrecy, took photographs of themselves with the cadavers that they dissected. The photographs were made in a variety of forms, from proud class portraits to staged dark-humor scenes, from personal documentation to images reproduced on postcards sent in the mail. Poignant, strange, disturbing, and humorous, they are all compelling.
Based on the revealing book Based on the revealing book Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in America, 1880-1930 by John Harley Warner and Jim Edmondson, the Center for the History of Medicine presents images of late 19th and early 20th century medical students posing around anatomical dissection tables. The highly stylized arrangements of students, dissection tables, cadavers, instruments and body parts suggest that these images were representations of a widely spread medical rite-of-passage.
On April 7th at 5:30 pm, in the Countway Library’s Minot Room, the authors will discuss the astonishing social realities of the pursuit of medical knowledge in 19th- and early-20th-century America.’

  • James M. Edmonson, PhD, “Re-discovering a lost genre of medical portraiture: the genesis of Dissection”
  • John Harley Warner, PhD, “Posing with the Cadaver: Human Dissection, Photography, and the Image of Modern Medicine at the Turn of the 20th Century”

ABOUT THE AUTHORS: James M. Edmonson, PhD, is Chief Curator of the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. John Harley Warner, PhD, is the Avalon Chair of the Section of the History of Medicine at Yale University.

Refreshments will be served.

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