The Johns Hopkins Gazette: July 19, 1999
July 19, 1999
VOL. 28, NO. 40


Historian Examines 200 Years of Medicine in Marylannd

Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

The library at the Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of Maryland's downtown Baltimore headquarters is said to be haunted by the ghost of a librarian named Marcia Noyes, who died in 1946. Noyes, as legend has it, roams the building's fourth-floor stacks, where the library's oldest books can be found, and, if it's very quiet, they say you can hear the phantom sounds of a card catalog shuffling.

Jane Eliot Sewell, an adjunct faculty member at the School of Public Health who holds a doctorate in the history of medicine from the School of Medicine, says that despite being told that nobody ever goes up to those stacks, she thought it was worth the risk to get her hands on the aging volumes stored there.

Jane Eliot Sewell

Sewell is not sure whether she believes in ghosts or not, but she is certain that a haunted medical library was a great place to begin researching a book on the past 200 years of medical history in Maryland.

"I never saw a ghost, but it was a nice environment to research in," Sewell says with her distinct British accent. "I just sat there leafing through tons and tons of boxes at an old school desk. It was absolutely quiet, the lights were dim, and every once in a while I'd say to myself, 'All right, is she here yet?' "

Sewell is the author of Medicine in Maryland: The Practice and Profession, 1799-1999, a 238-page book recently published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

The volume traces the history of medicine in Maryland from the days of bloodlettings and quackery to the widespread use of penicillin and the establishment of medical schools and on up to the advent of laser surgery and managed health care.

The book was commissioned to celebrate the bicentennial of the Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of Maryland, now known as MedChi, the Maryland State Medical Society. Founded in 1799, MedChi was one of the first professional organizations of its kind and today represents more than 7,000 physicians practicing statewide in more than 50 specialties.

Sewell, who began her research in 1993, says she initially thought this would be a half-time project.

"It certainly didn't turn out that way," Sewell says with a grin. "It was considerably more work than anybody really anticipated."

What the project turned into was four and a half years of research that led Sewell to each section of the state, scouring hospital and medical school archives for any tidbit of information she could dig up. Sewell says she wasn't looking to write a celebratory or coffee table book that just touched upon the major physicians and institutions but rather "a serious and scholarly work that puts something into the field."

Maryland made for an ideal subject, Sewell says, due to its combination of Northern and Southern influences, the diversity of how medical practices developed in different areas of the state and the leading role played by its medical schools.

Gert Brieger, William H. Welch Professor and chair of the History of Science, Medicine and Technology Department in the School of Medicine, says that Maryland can be seen as a microcosm of the rest of the country because of its mixture of rural and urban settings and the active medical practices that have developed in the state since Colonial times. Brieger adds that Sewell has done an admirable job putting together the history of medicine in the context of the state.

"Books have been written about individual hospitals and doctors before, but nobody has really tried to put all this information together in one large social context," Brieger says. "You can't just have a chronology of medicine, you have to weave it into a history of the state as a whole. She has done that very well."

The guiding theme of her research, Sewell says, was to incorporate the "geography and archaeology" of the state.

"By geography, I mean I wanted to have some effort at balance--I was going to look at the Eastern Shore, at Western Maryland. Basically, I wanted to get out of the center and look also at the smaller institutions," Sewell says. "And by archaeology, I mean digging through the levels of health care practice--not just looking at physicians but also nurses, midwives, chiropractors, osteopaths, a whole different range of people, some of whom were profoundly in conflict with one another--and it was interesting to see how that evolved over time."

The book also goes into detail on the early history of the School of Medicine and of The Johns Hopkins Hospital. Sewell includes such items as the living conditions of Hopkins' medical students in the 1920s, where they lived, what they ate, how they studied--and also how they partied.

"I wanted to include a lot of depth and breadth, as well as some insight and fun," says Sewell, who taught for six years at the University of Maryland School of Medicine before coming to Hopkins. "I didn't want a book that was going to be such a bore that you couldn't stand to turn to the next page. I wanted this book to appeal to a wide range of people, not just physicians."

This is Sewell's second book. Her first, Networks of Innovation: Vaccine Development at Merck, Sharp and Dohme, and Mulford, 1895-1995, was co-written with her husband, Louis Galambos, a professor of history in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.