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Each spring Elliott Miller, MD, brings together a new generation of physicians to learn about their predecessors, a unique occasion in that the students are the teachers – each is tasked with making a presentation – and their classroom is the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

Cemetery tour keeps history alive

29/Jun/2012

ANNUAL RITUAL: Miller listens to a presentation by resident Dan Saddawi-Konefka, MD.

Elliott Miller, MD, looks up from the thick binder full of historical documents, photos and interesting anecdotes detailing the MGH’s rich, 200-year history. He studies the Anesthesia residents gathered around him – most more than a half century his junior – and patiently waits for an answer to the question he has just posed. The retired MGH anesthesiologist smiles and nods as someone calls out the correct response.

Miller’s dedication to preserving history has become an annual ritual now for 30 years. Each spring he brings together a new generation of physicians to learn about their predecessors, a unique occasion in that the students are the teachers – each is tasked with making a presentation – and their classroom is the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

The 80-year-old Miller, who worked at the MGH for 32 years, says the reason behind the annual tour is simple: “I want them to own their own history.”

The group’s multi-car caravan winds through 10 miles of scenic cemetery roads, stopping periodically at the resting sites of historical figures who played key roles in the past of the MGH Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine. The headstones are weathered – some large and prominent amidst the surrounding statuesque trees, others barely visible.

The residents’ talks are like the headstones, varying in length and detail. Among their subjects are William T.G. Morton, who made history Oct. 16, 1846, with the first successful public demonstration of ether in the MGH Ether Dome; Oliver Wendell Holmes, MD, the MGH physician who coined the term “anesthesia;” and Nathaniel Bowditch, a 19th-century celestial navigator who helped raise funds for the construction of the MGH’ first building.

“Here’s something interesting: Dr. Augustus Gould was also a world-renowned conchologist and malacologist. Who knows what those mean?” one resident asks his fellow residents during his presentation. His colleagues are quick to point to the intricate carvings of conch and mollusk shells detailing the front of Gould’s headstone. Miller says he wants the 90-minute tour to be both educational and enjoyable, but above all he hopes it helps the residents enter their careers with appreciation and respect for the many MGHers who helped pave the way.

According to staff anesthesiologist Jim Rhee, MD, who has joined the tour for the past three years, Miller has achieved that goal. “It is a fantastic time. Dr. Miller has a wealth of historical information and is a valuable resource for our department. He gives us an incredible legacy and tradition.”

Following the evening’s last presentation, the students give Miller an appreciative round of applause as he closes his binder – its history now in their hands.



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