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The History of History in Three Acts


Billie Broaddus, Director, Cincinnati Medical Heritage Center
Lucretia McClure, Librarian Emerita, Edward G. Miner Library, University of Rochester Medical Center
Maggie Yax, Albert B. Sabin Archivist, Cincinnati Medical Heritage Center

Prologue: In the Beginning

The Committee for the History of Medicine Luncheon, chaired by Ellen B. Wells of NLM, organized and held its first luncheon on June 9, 1966 at MLA's 65th Annual Meeting in Boston. Ninety members attended and, after a lecture by Jean Mayer entitled "The Ethics of Birth Control" in which the need for communication of historical information to the medical student was stressed, the members discussed what purpose a history of medicine group would serve if one were established. They decided that such a group should devote itself to the problems of maintaining and improving resource materials in the history of medicine, rather than prepare papers in the subject. The Committee, including Wells, Janet Koudelka, Martha Gnudi and Richard J. Wolfe, accepted the responsibility for serving another year.

Act I: A Season of Vision

The History of Medicine Libraries Group, as it came to be called, continued on for the next nine years, sponsoring luncheons or dinners at annual meetings with librarians or physicians as invited speakers. Speakers included Lee Ash, Genevieve Miller, Ellen Wells, Peter Olch, Frederick A. Frye, Wayne Eley, Charles G. Roland and Charles A. Owen; topics covered were a survey of historical resources in the U.S. and Canada, librarians and historical collections, conservation, the Osler Library, pediatrics, oral history, and Paracelsus. At business meetings administrative concerns and potential activities were discussed. One of the group's first functions, a continuing education course "Reference Materials in the History of Medicine," was inaugurated at the 1968 Annual Meeting in Denver. At the same meeting, the group decided its next activity would be to compile a list of consultants qualified and willing to advise on historical collections. By 1970, the list was complete, and Chairman Nancy Zinn announced the group's next project, a directory of history of health sciences collections. At the 1971 meeting, Zinn reported that nine copies of the consultants' list had been sold and proceeds would be available to continue work on the directory; it was hoped that MLA would be able to contribute to this project. Lisabeth Holloway, directory editor, updated its progress and explained the questionnaire to be used in its compilation. Other early leaders included Gertrude Annan, Alice Creighton, Terence Cavanaugh, Louise Darling, Ruth Mann, Ferenc Gyorgyey, Robin Overmier, and Emil Frey, who moderated the group's first panel discussion at the 1974 meeting.

Act II: A Season of Change

At the 74th Annual Meeting in 1975, the group, then chaired by Holloway, experienced its first transition. Around this time MLA was discussing a new structure and proposing many changes. The history group felt that it was unable to achieve its objective of substantive accomplishments within the framework of MLA. There was only limited space available for programming and MLA was unable to support the group's directory project. A separate group for librarians in the history of health sciences was proposed. A steering committee for the new group, composed of Holloway, Zinn, Overmier, Mann, Gyorgyey, Doris Thibodeau, Helen Crawford and Jonathon Erlen, was charged to proceed with its organization. Its primary functions, communication and cooperation, were to be achieved by sponsoring substantive meetings and programs, publishing a newsletter, and operating with as little structure as possible. It was made clear that this new organization would not compete for members or conflict with the meetings of MLA or the American Association for the History of Medicine.


Although this new group did become a reality, MLA's history group continued much as before with many individuals holding dual memberships. The group sponsored luncheons and speakers at annual meetings, and held business meetings as usual. Speakers of this period included Estelle Brodman and Owen Wangensteen. The group also sponsored panels, programs and papers on a variety of topics, such as archives, oral histories, and historical medicine. At the 1981 meeting, when groups were becoming sections, Overmier moved that the history group change its name to the History of Health Sciences Section (HHSS). The motion passed and work began in earnest on bylaws. During this time, section activities expanded to include sponsoring or co-sponsoring programs of contributed or invited papers at annual meetings. Topics now included technology, appraisal, interfacing with NLM's Historical Medicine Division, and the role of historical collections in a high-tech medical library. The section also sponsored poster sessions and worked on such projects as an exhibit exchange and a statistical compilation of historical collections. Toward the end of the eighties, HHSS began publishing a newsletter edited by Dorothy Whitcomb entitled Incipit. At the beginning of the new decade, the section was very active with the Oral History Committee. Whitcomb served as chair and arranged for MLA to sponsor an oral history workshop and CE course.

Act III: A Season of Doubt

Early in the 1990s, MLA's Section Council asked several small sections to consider changing their status to Special Interest Group (SIG). The smaller sections, of which HHSS was one, were having difficulty finding enough active members willing and able to serve as officers and accomplish the variety of tasks Section Council asked of them. HHSS took the matter to heart and seriously considered changing its status. Many individuals who long had been active members of HHSS suggested that perhaps the section should become a SIG since, at the time, it was small and too few members were available to actively participate. In addition, some medical history librarians did not feel they were a vital or important part of MLA and began to think that the association had relatively little to offer them. Others felt it was essential to continue to have a voice and presence in MLA in order to expose the uniqueness and value of historical collections to library directors, heads of reference and technical services, and other library colleagues. This issue was much discussed and debated between 1992 and 1993, however neither discussion nor mail ballot could establish a clear mandate. The debate ultimately cooled and HHSS decided to retain section status and maintain its visibility in MLA. Since then, a new group of interested individuals emerged to reinvigorate the section.

Prologue: Fourth Season

HHSS has recommitted itself to its original purpose of addressing the problems of maintaining and improving resource materials in the history of medicine, and has enhanced it by assuming a role of advocacy for historical collections. In addition, the section has increasingly emphasized its relationship and responsibility to MLA. It has, therefore, updated its bylaws to be in compliance with MLA, and has initiated activities designed to benefit the association's varied membership. In 1996-97, HHSS developed, proposed and taught two CE courses: History of Medicine Resources for Small Libraries, and Introduction to Archives. Members are currently developing a MLA BibKit in the History of Health Sciences and have worked with the Oral History and Centennial Committees in preparation for MLA's Centennial Celebration. HHSS continues its commitment to effective communication by developing and maintaining a Web page and publishing Incipit. Through these endeavors, the section has encouraged submissions to the Murray Gottlieb Award, relates news of collections, resources and activities in the history of medicine community, and publicizes section activities. In 1997, the section took pride in having a historical article (by the 1996 Murray Gottlieb Award recipient and section member, Stephen Greenberg) published in the Bulletin of the Medical Library Association. This is considered something of a milestone because it is the first historical article published in BMLA in many years, and may be viewed as further evidence of the section's commitment to demonstrating the importance and relevance of historical collections and topics. HHSS continues to sponsor or co-sponsor programs and poster sessions, and will be a very active participant in the Centennial meeting where it will be involved with four programs and two poster sessions. Through activities such as these and its renewed commitment to visibility and involvement in MLA, the section anticipates a bright future.

List of Officers of the History of the Health Sciences Section