Philadelphia is home to the ninth oldest medical college in the United States — and the fascinating archives that come with it.
Founded in 1824, Thomas Jefferson University has maintained a wealth of records. Most impressively, many of them are digitized. Staff have worked since 2005 to upload materials to an accessible and searchable online repository.
“That’s the most exciting part, is to discover it for yourself,” university archivist F. Michael Angelo told Billy Penn. “We saved almost everything. It’s a really rich collection, very detailed, very complete.”
That means in quarantine, you can peruse centuries of health records totally free.
You wouldn’t be alone. “I suspect we’re getting new audiences now,” Angelo said. “We’ve been getting more emails and phone calls asking questions, especially about genealogy.”
The archives contain leads into stories about all number of topics, from war history to women’s rights to scandals over racist body snatching. The most popular item? Look no further than an 1840 text on the anatomy of the breast.
Read on for a few highlights to get you started.
Civil War field medicine tips
If you’re interested in what it’s like to perform emergency medical procedures under extreme duress, look to the Civil War.
There are dozens of records on military surgery from the 1850s and ’60s, when Jefferson doctors were overwhelmed with wartime injuries. The documents cover surgical technicalities, descriptions of emotional strife, and notes about the importance of medical professionals on the battlefield.
In the 1861 book “A Manual of Military Surgery,” Jefferson surgeon Samuel Gross wrote:
“No men of any sober reflection would enlist in the service of their country, if they were not positively certain that competent physicians and surgeons would accompany them in their marches and on the field of battle, ready to attend to their diseases and accidents.”
Stories from the first women graduates
A dark spot on Jefferson’s history is its sexist legacy. The Philly medical school was among the last in the country to start accepting women as students, according to Angelo, the archivist. But at least the experiences of these female pioneers were well recorded.
“They did a really nice job interviewing some of those in the very first class of women, from 1961 to 1967,” Angelo said.
There are about a dozen recorded interviews with women who graduated in Jefferson’s first few integrated classes — with audio files and written transcriptions available online.
Nancy Szwec Czarnecki tells her story as the first woman ever to graduate from Jefferson’s medical school. There’s also Bonnie Lee Ashby, who later moved onto an infectious disease fellowship at Lankenau.
Anita Robinson first attended grad school at Penn but then realized she wanted to practice medicine first hand instead of research it. She’s still working in Philadelphia as a specialist in adolescent medicine.
Your great grandfather’s diploma
Over the past 200 years, Thomas Jefferson University has graduated more than 46,000 medical students. By Angelo’s estimation, if your fam has been in Philly awhile, you’re likely to find someone you know in their diploma records.
“Somebody in Philadelphia who has an interesting last name probably can look in the directory and find forebears with the same last name,” Angelo said. “The odds are pretty good.”
Here are the steps to find someone:
- Head to the Jefferson genealogy site and download the alumni directory index
- Do a name search, and note the graduation date
- Go back to the regular Jefferson archives, type in the last name and narrow the search by graduation year
If you’re lucky, you could find past work of someone related to you or your friends, and perhaps even find their signature in one of the university ledger books.
Dissection: Crucial to learning, hard to supply
For those who like to confront their own mortality, searching the Jefferson archives for the word “dissection” will yield a whopping 1,177 results.
If you choose to click, many of them reveal pics of white men with handlebar mustaches, crowded around medical tables. Sometimes it’s dozens of people watching, sometimes just a few. Some of the bodies they’re observing have been resorted to skeletons, while some look mostly normal.
In the 19th century, it was tough to find cadavers on which to practice, and the college was at one point entangled in a scandal over “body snatchers” who raided Black cemeteries and sold disinterred bodies for $8 apiece.
Especially considering the provenance of what’s on the table, the pictures are super interesting. They also reveal the evolution of popular facial hair choices of Philly’s medical types over the years.
Super-accurate anatomy drawings
Keep your inner preteen boy from giggling if you must, but it’s true. The most popular item in the archives has to do with female anatomy.
According to Jefferson archivist Angelo, “Anatomy of the Breast” by Sir Astley Cooper has been downloaded more than 20,000 times and surpasses any other archive document in number of views.
“I have to wonder how many of those downloads are because it has the word breast in it,” Angelo said. “Still, it’s a really cool item.”
Though the thing was written in the 19th century, it’s still super accurate — among the most accurate drawings of breast anatomy in the history of medicine, Angelo said. So it’s popular among medical students and researchers… and yes, prob some internet trolls, too.