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How an 18th-century doctor enticed a librarian to study the history of medicine

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2015 - Spring


Melissa J. Grafe, Ph.D., likes to reach back in time to tell the story of John Archer, the first graduate of an American medical school program. Practicing in 18th-century Pennsylvania, and confronted with a child whose symptoms resembled what we now call diphtheria, Archer discovered a treatment using a native American plant. A dose of Seneca snakeroot, a powerful emetic, allowed the suffocating child to breathe again.

Use of the treatment began to spread after Archer told his five physician sons and 35 apprentices about his successful experimentation with Seneca snakeroot.

“I started to delve into the story of this man, and his sons, and his apprentices,” Grafe, the John R. Bumstead Librarian for Medical History, said of the physician who was the subject of her dissertation at Johns Hopkins University. In 1768 Archer became the first graduate of the School of Medicine of the College of Philadelphia, now the University of Pennsylvania. “His story is why I became interested in medical education and apprenticeship. People learn medicine in so many different ways. How does it play out in a family whose members are all so interested in medicine?”

Her interest in the history of medicine had begun earlier, during her undergraduate days at Ursinus College in her native Pennsylvania, when she read the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Midwife’s Tale, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.

Now, Grafe pursues her interests in medical education and the history of medicine at work every day. As director of the Medical Historical Library, she helps students and scholars navigate its collections, housed within the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library. She curates exhibits that showcase materials from the library’s more than 140,000 volumes, as well as thousands of manuscripts, drawings, prints, incunabula, and other items spanning every era of medical history. Recent exhibits range from the 16th-century anatomical drawings of Vesalius, some of which incorporate an ingenious lift-the-flap design not unlike what we see in children’s books today, to posters highlighting global health issues.

After college, Grafe worked at historical sites in Pennsylvania and North Dakota, curating exhibits, conducting tours, and working on community outreach and education. In North Dakota, where the distance to a hospital can be great, she also trained as an EMT. It was then, Grafe said, that “I became interested in how people heal themselves.”

Grafe completed her Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins in 2009 and then did postdoctoral work through the Council on Library and Information Resources. She was a librarian at Lehigh University when the position at the Medical Historical Library became open. She jumped at the opportunity. “This is a once-in-every-20-or-30-year position,” she said. “This is the kind of collection you want to be a part of.” Grafe came to Yale in 2011 and lives in North Guilford with her husband and two young sons.

In addition to overseeing library collections, Grafe works with medical school faculty. “They find great materials in their own departments and want to do something with them, or want to know more about the history of their own fields.” She and the library staff have been working with members of the Department of Surgery, helping them locate materials for an upcoming book and exhibit on the department’s history. “By going back 20, 30, or 40 years, you can get to understand how a field has changed,” Grafe said, “and why it is the way it is now.”

Digitization of the library’s collections is another important piece of Grafe’s work. “Our goal is to make our collections widely available to everybody. That’s why we digitize; we want the collections to be used.” The library also offers alumni the chance to digitize their own medical school theses and add their own work as Yale students to the online archives.

Though online access is vital, nothing, Grafe noted, can replace seeing the collections in person. “A digital image gives you a snapshot, but if you actually come to see the physical piece, you end up understanding more about it; it generates new questions.” And, she said, there is always the “wow” factor: the chance to be in the presence of the past’s medical heroes. The library holds pieces from many scientific greats: Newton, Kepler, and Copernicus, to name a few.

“Can you imagine touching a letter written by Charles Darwin in 1859?” Grafe asked. It is this kind of irreplaceable experience a library can provide, one that can inspire a scientist to experiment anew.