The MGH Archives houses the official records of the hospital dating back to its beginnings. Archivist Lucy Ross, who oversees collections of documents and photographs spanning more than a quarter mile of shelf space, discusses this valuable resource – and its constant surprises.

The MGH is all about looking forward, so why look back at its history?

Drawn by medical resident Ernest Craige, MD, in June 1947, a caption on the back of the original art reads: “This is the original drawing of the industrious little man which heads the Archives column in THE NEWS.”

The history of medicine is not all leeches and alchemy, but is about major ongoing themes, such as the evolution of the doctor-patient relationship, the progression of the scientific method and working toward evidence-based practices. The history of medicine touches everyone. At the MGH, records can show us why certain things are the way they are. Out of the apothecary, for example, grew not only the pharmacy, but also imaging. We can also gain perspective on how far medicine has come in a relatively short time.

Who uses the archives, and why?

Most requests come from MGH staff looking for photos relating to their department or verifying that a certain person was in their department during a certain year, though I should note that we do not have personnel records or modern patient records. We also host researchers from the world over who are writing papers or books on topics such as the history of the social service and anesthesia.

Where does the archives get its materials?

The archives collects whatever materials it can – such as Broadcast MGH emails about hospital policies or changes of heads of departments, or new issues of hospital newsletters to add to existing collections – but largely relies on donations from MGHers. Though donors are most commonly physicians, anyone can contribute. We aim to preserve the history of all the people who have made MGH what it is.

What is your favorite item in the archives?

Currently it is a scrapbook compiled by Jane Holbrook, a medical illustrator here in the 1940s, that includes not only department pictures, but also party pictures – snapshots of daily life inside and outside the hospital.

Aren’t a lot of the documents you consult – like reports – pretty dry?

Even in things that appear to be dry, you’ll find signs of life – doodles in the corner or a pithy cover letter. Also, I must say I come across a delightful amount of verse – in a newsletter called the World of MGH, department newsletters, retirement party programs – in places you’d least expect it.

Is it archives or archive?

Archives generally refers to collections of records or the physical place where the records are kept. Archive usually refers to less formal collections,
like a file cabinet full of old papers. Really, though, either term is fine.

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