Johns Hopkins Gazette | December 8, 2008
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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University December 8, 2008 | Vol. 38 No. 14
JHMI Celebrates the Evolution of Chesney's Dream

Clockwise from center: Nancy McCall, director of the Medical Archives, with staff members Kate Ugarte, Andrew Harrison, David Zande and Phoebe Evans Letocha.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins' present and future owe a debt to those who safeguarded its past — the generations of faculty, staff and alumni of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions who had the vision to save the historical records that today constitute the Medical Archives.

First came the nurses at the Johns Hopkins Hospital School of Nursing, who were trained to be record keepers. Under the leadership of Mary Adelaide Nutting, superintendent of nurses from 1894 to 1907, they began collecting documents that would become the Johns Hopkins Nursing Historical Collection, housed in their school's library. Their collection grew when their alumni sponsored the 1954 publication of their history by Ethel Johns and Blanche Pfefferkorn, The Johns Hopkins Hospital School of Nursing 1889-1949.

Alan M. Chesney, the School of Medicine's dean from 1929 to 1953, led the initial effort to establish an archival repository for The Johns Hopkins Hospital and the School of Medicine. Chesney felt an obligation to preserve the many significant institutional documents he had uncovered while researching and writing his three-volume history, The Johns Hopkins Hospital and The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine: A Chronicle.

For the next two decades, Chesney attempted to persuade hospital and School of Medicine administrators — and directors of the Welch Medical Library and the Institute of the History of Medicine — to establish and oversee an archival program. To his great dismay, he met opposition at every turn.

Chesney, who died in 1964, would not live to see his vision realized. Yet his monumental efforts and persistence paved the way for what would become the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives, which turns 30 this year.

To celebrate the occasion, the Medical Archives hosted a birthday event on Wednesday in the School of Medicine's Tilghman Room — the site of the archives' dedication ceremony 30 years earlier — to offer invited guests a glimpse into the archives' past and their digital future.

Since the Medical Archives' inception, its mission has been to collect and preserve records and cultural materials critical to the legacy and ongoing operations of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. It also seeks to promote access to collections for use in ongoing operations of the medical institutions and as primary resources in research and education.

Among its vast holdings — which now include the Johns Hopkins Nursing Historical Collection, as well as the records of the School of Public Health — are personal paper collections, research papers, historic photographs and films, biographical files and several thousand art objects and artifacts, including a major portrait collection.

Ralph Hruban, chair of the Medical Archives Advisory Committee, said at the event that the archives remain a vital patch of Johns Hopkins' fabric.

"Our history and traditions separate Johns Hopkins from other institutions, and the archives are the keepers of that. They show the heart and soul of this institution," Hruban said. "And this history is a living history that we can use today. It helps guides us and serves as a map as we go out on uncharted seas, such as the development of new curriculum for the School of Medicine."

The archives are jointly funded by The Johns Hopkins Hospital and the schools of Medicine, Nursing and Public Health, with additional financial support from individuals, foundations, organizations and federal agencies.

After Chesney's passing, the plan for a medical archive slumbered. The collections of documents and records that Chesney assembled remained in storage in various nooks and crannies of the library and elsewhere. In 1973, when the hospital's School of Nursing closed, Betty Cuthbert placed the school's institutional records and personal paper collections in the Nightingale Room of the Welch Medical Library, the Maryland Historical Society and in her basement.

Then along came Thomas B. Turner, the School of Medicine's dean from 1957 to 1968. While researching a history of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions from 1914 to 1947, Turner collected significant documentation. After publishing Heritage of Excellence in 1974, Turner turned his attention to developing an archival repository for the medical institutions.

He set out on a round of diplomacy. First he persuaded the president of The Johns Hopkins Hospital (Robert Heyssel) and the deans of the schools of Medicine (Richard S. Ross) and Public Health (D.A. Henderson) to fund a joint archival program for JHMI. Turner next sought and received permission from hospital and university trustees.

Told of the need for funds, Turner turned his attention to grant writing. A grant from the Commonwealth Fund of New York would help pay for the bricks and mortar and compact shelving, while grants from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and the National Library of Medicine would fund the start-up staff.

Turner later obtained permission from the trustees to name the archives in honor of Chesney, and on May 17, 1978, the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives was formally dedicated.

Turner served as inaugural director until 1982. He was succeeded by A. McGehee Harvey, the former chairman of the Department of Medicine and physician in chief of The Johns Hopkins Hospital. The key focus of Harvey's directorship was shoring up the documents, data and information that were needed to prepare for the upcoming centennials of the hospital and the School of Medicine, to be documented in the book A Model of Its Kind.

Harvey stepped down as director in 1987, and his successor was Nancy McCall, who continues in that post today.

In her remarks at the event, McCall said that it took a special man like Turner to make Chesney's dream finally come true.

"Turner was the consummate diplomat in East Baltimore," said McCall, who worked as a part- time editorial assistant to Turner and aided in setting up the archival program. "He had connections at all the institutions, and he used them. It was quite an accomplishment at the time to have this sort of institutional cooperation."

Initially, for administrative purposes, the archives were placed in the School of Medicine within the Office of the Dean; in 1987, they moved to the Institute of the History of Medicine.

The archives have had several physical homes. They were first housed in Turner Auditorium and later moved to the Hunterian Building and then to 2024 E. Monument St., all on the East Baltimore campus. In October 2005, the archives and the staff — including seven full-time employees, student interns and volunteers — moved into 11,500 square feet on the second floor of McAuley Hall on the university's Mount Washington campus. The archives had long since outgrown their 4,200 square feet at 2024 E. Monument St.

Today, the staff transacts around 1,000 reference and research requests per year, nearly half from users with Johns Hopkins affiliations.

The Medical Archives has directed a number of major projects in its history, including a three- year effort in the 1980s to process personal paper collections of JHMI faculty and staff, a seven- year project to collect the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions' records, and the preservation and digitization of 1931 film footage of The Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Johns Hopkins Base Hospital 18 in World War II.

McCall said that because digitizing entire collections would be cost-prohibitive, the staff has concentrated its resources on describing what is in the collections. This year, it began to digitize some of the more than 400,000 photographs in its collection as part of a larger effort to preserve critical JHMI records, data and information in digital formats. Another key feature of the archives' digital planning is to develop strategies for preserving data and information in digital formats so that it may be retrieved and used over time. In 2007, it began a project to develop a model for electronic records management at JHMI, funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. The staff hopes to report its findings within the next year.

At the event on Wednesday, the archives premiered a new Web site, which, when it goes live later this month, will open up the catalog to the public, allowing users to search for documents, images and histories. It will also include complete finding aids to some of its large personal paper collections listing all of their folders.

McCall said that the lives and contributions of the individuals represented in the collections are inspiring and relevant to the challenges that the health professions face today.

"One of the great privileges of working with the holdings here has been not only to document the actual evolution of the medical institutions but to document the values and culture of the institution over time," she said. "The archives show the strength and grit that was required to build a world-class institution of teaching, research and patient care."

For more on the archives, go to:


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