Thursday, March 31, 2011

History Bound: The Mass General and its past in print

Eight books cover two centuries

The continuing history of the MGH has been captured in a number of books written by both MGH staff and hired writers.  These eight volumes, covering from 1810 to the present, are still available at the Treadwell Library and are also in the collections of the MGH Archives and the Boston Public Library. The text of two volumes (Bowditch and the Centennial Review) can be found online via Google Books. 

A History of the Massachusetts General Hospital (To August 5, 1851)
by Nathaniel Ingersoll Bowditch

Second edition published in 1872 after Bowditch's death, edited by Reverend George E. Ellis.

The first book recording MGH history is a straight reprinting of the early trustees meetings and corporation records of the hospital. Every appointment, donation, free bed, staff salary, policy and staff change is recorded here.  Author Nathaniel Ingersoll Bowditch – an early supporter of the MGH who served for many years as secretary and treasurer for the Board of Trustees – self-published the first edition in 1851.  A continuation – considered the second MGH history volume – brings the hospital’s story up to 1870 and was incorporated into a later printing of the Bowditch book.

"I have been personally connected with [the hospital], in the offices, of Secretary and Trustee, for twenty-five years; and my father-in-law Ebenezer Francis Esq., was one of its earliest and most active Managers. Our joint recollection extends back through the whole period of its existence. The materials for such a history were thus, to a considerable extent, either already possessed by me or placed easily within reach. Their selection and arrangement have been "a labor of love."

"It is due to the Institution to say, this is not in any sense an official publication, but merely a private and humble contribution in its behalf -- a slight and inadequate expression of the interest felt in its welfare by one who has ever regarded as among his happiest hours those which he has been privileged pass in its service."

History of the Massachusetts General Hospital, A Continuation 1871 to 1900
by Grace Myers

Grace Whiting Myers was the hospital librarian and the first medical records administrator.  Her slim volume is written in simple, easy-to-read prose, and is thoughtfully indexed in the margins of each page.  It is filled with the tiny details that help readers imagine life a late-19th-century medical institution.

"With the exception of the first three chapters, and one other combining two rather barren years, the work is divided by single years, a chapter to each year; and as an assistance in finding desired information, marginal notes have been made, the general order being observed in the record of events for the several years."

The Massachusetts General Hospital, Its Development 1900 - 1935
by Frederic A. Washburn, MD

Following his retirement as general director in 1934, Dr. Frederic Washburn picked up the mantle to write the next installment of the MGH history.  With access to his contemporaries for interviews and other resources, Washburn was able to incorporate material not available for the previous books.  Still full of facts, figures and names, the book marks a huge change in that it contains numerous voices and recollections, making it a more individual and less administrative account of hospital life.

 "In these pages will be found the story of the period of the Hospital's greatest development, interestingly linked with the history of the preceding seventy-five years, described more in detail by earlier historians."

 Massachusetts General Hospital, 1921, Memorial and Historical Volume

Not quite a history, the Memorial and Historical Volume is a commemorative book celebrating the hospital’s first 100 years of patient admissions as well as the 75th anniversary of the first successful demonstration of the use of ether in surgery.  Each chapter – individual speeches given at events commemorating the anniversaries – is written by a different physician, nurse or other employee, making the book the most personal of all the published works.

"This book is printed to put in permanent record the speeches delivered at the celebration of the centennial of the opening of the Hospital and the seventy-fifth anniversary of the first operation under ether. It includes also an account of the activities of the Hospital in the World War, and the dedication of the memorials to those who died.”

"The next section contains brief historical sketches of some of the departments of the institution . . . . At some future time it is hoped that this history will be brought up to date. This is not attempted here, except in a fragmented way.

"The next section contains a brief history of some financial affairs of the Hospital, and a detailed account of the subscriptions from the beginning.

"The lists of officers from Bowditch's History have been brought up to date." 

The Massachusetts General Hospital, 1935 - 1955
by Nathaniel W. Faxon, MD


Like Washburn before him, Faxon was a retired hospital administrator when he wrote this fifth book, which covers not only the hospital’s work in Boston but also that of the men and women who enlisted to fight as well as through who delivered care abroad during World War II.  Acutely aware of the denseness of both language and information in the Bowditch volume, Faxon made a pointed effort to compose a history that, in addition to being full of solid information, was both engaging and informative.

"The history of a hospital is officially expressed in the minutes of its trustees and committees. Although these are summarized and, together with the reports of departments, published in annual reports, the resulting effect is like seeing only the trees and missing the picture of the forest."

"The objective of the present history is to recount the activities of the Hospital from 1935 to 1955."

"Impressed by the high quality and readableness of Mrs. Myers' history, I shall begin by following her plan of chronological presentation by single years, a chapter to each year. Some subjects, however, are of such magnitude and importance and their story covers so many years that I have felt it necessary to add separate chapters covering their development, following in this procedure the plan adopted by Dr. Washburn in his history. I trust that this combination will not be confusing."

Every Man Our Neighbor
by Joseph E. Garland

Journalist and historian Joe Garland was drafted by the Mass General in the early 60s to write and produce a small volume highlighting the hospital’s first 150 years for its sesquicentennial celebration in 1961.  Smaller and with far more illustrations and images than the previous works, Gardner’s valentine to the MGH is as informative as it is enduring. It is the only hospital history to be reprinted in the past 100 years. 

"About four months ago it occurred to some of the people who were planning the 150th Anniversary of the Massachusetts General Hospital that a short, more or less readable story of its history did not exist. Four consecutive accounts -- adding up to two thousand pages (and the mountain from which most of the molehill that follows was sifted) -- had been capably written, but they do not constitute in the aggregate an easy evening's entertainment or instruction. A bird's eye view was needed, and I agreed to be the bird. The result is a kind of sketch; it touches on the high points and avoids detail, and is intentionally inferential rather than comprehensive." 

Massachusetts General Hospital, 1955 - 1980
Edited by Benjamin Cattleman, David C. Crockett, S.B. Sutton; foreword by John E. Lawrence

Picking up where Faxon left off, the Castleman history features yet another style of historical presentation.  Written and edited by an MGH physician, an administrator and a hired writer, each chapter focuses on a single department or unit of the hospital and provides a 25-year retrospective on its service.  Included are profiles of previous service chiefs, details about unit openings and, for the first time, an accounting of several administrative and nonclinical areas of the hospital.

"In these pages will be found the story of the Massachusetts General Hospital during the past 25 years of its extraordinary growth and accomplishment in the long history of a hospital that has set a standard for American medicine.

"The authors included in this volume have wisely chosen to characterize the achievements of the MGH during that period through a series of biographic sketches. The lives of physicians, administrators, researchers, trustees, and others who have contributed their talents to the MGH are portrayed here." 

Something in the Ether, A Bicentennial History of Massachusetts General Hospital, 1811 - 2011
by Webster Bull and Martha Bull

As the hospital celebrates its bicentennial, it is important to note how different today’s MGH is from the MGH of the Bowditch years.  While Bowditch’s book focuses on numbers, facts and reports, the latest volume, written by Webster and Martha Bull, zeros in on the people and stories that are woven into the fabric of the institution.  The book unfolds in a nonlinear fashion, catching tales and anecdotes as they come along, allowing them to fill in gaps in the framework outlined in the older books.

"The mission assigned in 2007 was to capture the spirit of Massachusetts General Hospital. I can only hope that most of what the reader finds here serves that mission—from the evocative title to more than 100 interviews with MGH personnel and observers....What this book seeks to do is to suggest the astounding breadth and depth of Massachusetts General Hospital. We approached this project as lay writers following our noses. The stories you read here are stories we bumped into, stories that inspired us, wowed us, taught us something. I hope they do justice to a great institution." a


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