Healing Energy: Radium in America, a New Digital Exhibition at the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

Dr. Robert Abbe (1851-1928)
Dr. Robert Abbe (1851-1928)

Throughout history, the Fellows of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia have been at the forefront of many advancements in the history of medicine, not least of whom was Dr. Robert Abbe, a pioneer not only in the field of plastic surgery, but also in the use of radium in medical therapy.



Jeffrey Womack, a Library volunteer and doctoral student at the University of Houston, and Tristan Dahn, Digital Projects Librarian at the Historical Medical Library, explore the discovery of radium by Pierre and Marie Curie, and tell the story of early experimentations with radium, including Dr. Abbe’s self-experimentation, and the use of radium in such “health” products as the “Radium Emanator.”

Pamphlet advertising The Saubermann Radium Emanation Activator, circa 1900.

Abbe’s long correspondence with Marie Curie culminated with her visit to the College in May 1921, during which Curie donated the piezo-electrometer currently on display in the Hutchinson alcove of the Mütter Museum.

Quartz piezo electrometer, donated to the Mütter Museum by Marie Curie in 1921.
Quartz piezo electrometer, donated to the Mütter Museum by Marie Curie in 1921.

The exhibit may be viewed at http://bit.ly/1Qpl4qA or by going to http://www.cppdigitallibrary.org/exhibits/.

Jeffrey Womack is a doctoral student at the University of Houston, completing his dissertation on the development of radium and x-ray therapies between 1895 and 1935, under the direction of Martin Melosi. His recent publications include “Nuclear Weapons, Dystopian Deserts, and Science Fiction Cinema,” in Vulcan: The International Journal of the Social History of Military Technology 1, No. 1 (2013; Bart Hacker, editor), and “Miracle in the Sky: Solar Power Satellites,” in American Energy Policy in the 1970s, (Robert Lifset, editor; Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014). He is also a contributor to the Encyclopedia of American Environmental History. Jeffrey is currently based in the Philadelphia area, where he teaches at Drexel University.

Tristan Dahn is a recent graduate of the Library and Information Studies program at McGill University. He joined the Library staff in September 2015, and is currently overseeing the digitization of 20th century state medical journals through the Library’s partnership in the Medical Heritage Library. Tristan also is leading the Library’s experiments in the digital humanities.

Cleaning Up Bad Data and Finding Hidden Collections: How ArchivesSpace Makes Our Archives Accessible

As is the case in so many libraries and archives, the manuscript collections at the Historical Medical Library used to be difficult to find, let alone search. Some were available through the College website as (essentially) text files. Unless a researcher knew the name of the collection he or she wanted to consult, it was virtually impossible to find the correct information.

The old interface researchers saw when searching our finding aids
The old interface researchers saw when searching our finding aids.

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All History is Local: Using Philadelphia Collections in National History Day Projects

I have been involved with National History Day (NHD) since 2001 as both a judge and as a librarian. Judging this competition is exciting – middle and high school students put their heart and soul into projects, some of which are of exceptional caliber. Working with NHD as a librarian can be frustrating – students seem to stick with the same 10 broad topics, all of which can be researched with little more than a few clicks on Google.

I am going to tell students a deep, dark secret held closely by NHD judges: if we, the judges, read another paper, or see another exhibition, about the atomic bomb, or about the Salem witch trials, or about Alice Paul, we might start screaming. The impact of the atomic bomb on international relations, or the impact of the trials on the development of government in New England, or Paul’s impact on women’s suffrage cannot be denied. However, I’ve read a paper each year since 2001 about the atomic bomb, regardless of the annual theme of NHD, papers with bibliographies that are created using nothing but sources that are found online.

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Welcome to this inaugural edition of Fugitive Leaves…

…the blog of the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia (HML). In the tradition of the Transactions and Studies of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the blog will highlight the history of medicine and related fields through the work of the scholars we are privileged to host. The blog will also highlight the work of Library staff as well as the unique and wondrous, mundane and ephemeral, aspects of the Library collection, a collection that provides us with endless fascination.

We look forward to your thoughts and comments – the history of medicine is nothing if not a dialogue between what is and what could be. We welcome your participation in that dialogue!

With this inaugural post, we would like to share some exciting news: the HML is home to the largest collection of confirmed anthropodermic books in the country.

This past March the Historical Medical Library (HML) hosted Dr. Richard Hark, the H. George Foster Chair of Chemistry at Juniata College, who came to take minute samples of book bindings purported to be anthropodermic – bound in human skin. Samples were taken, and testing was conducted by Dr. Daniel Kirby, a Conservation Scientist in private practice.

Dr. Kirby used peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF), a method used “to identify mammalian sources of collagen.” PMF does not look at DNA; rather, “enzymatic digestion is used to cleave collagen at specific amino acid sites forming a mixture of peptides. The amino acid sequence of each protein is unique, thus the resultant mixture of peptides is unique.” Drs. Hark and Kirby presented their findings on September 29th at SciX, a conference dedicated “to the analytical sciences, instrumentation and unique applications,” at which they confirmed that the HML is home to five samples of anthropodermic bibliopegy, the largest such confirmed collection in the United States.

The most intriguing aspect of three of these five books is that we not only know who bound the books, but we also know from whom the skin was taken. What follows is the story of Dr. John Stockton Hough and Mary Lynch, a young medical student and a poor Irish immigrant, whose encounter in 1869 led to the creation of the most unique books.

-by Beth Lander, College Librarian

The Skin She Lived In: Anthropodermic Books in the Historical Medical Library

On Wednesday, July 15, 1868, a 28 year old woman named Mary Lynch was admitted to Old Blockley, Philadelphia’s almshouse, officially known as Philadelphia General Hospital (PGH). Old Blockley was located at what is now the intersection of 34th Street and Civic Center Boulevard, on the southeast corner of the University of Pennsylvania. Blockley was where you went when you could not afford care in a private hospital.

The Women’s Receiving Register from PGH lists a small amount of information for each patient: name, birthplace (a country, if other than the United States. Mary was born in Ireland.), age, temperate or intemperate habits (Were you a drunk, or not?), date of admission, ward, color and diagnosis.

Mary suffered from phthitis, an archaic term for tuberculosis of the lungs.  Read more…