Imperfecta: Fear, wonder, and science

On March 9, 2017, Imperfecta opens in the Mütter Museum, an exhibit curated by the staff of the Historical Medical Library, which will examine in text, image, and specimen how fear, wonder, and science shaped the understanding of abnormal human development.

One facet of this story is how people, laymen and scientists, reacted to new information in a time of discovery and upheaval.  Steve Desch, an astrophysicist from the University of Arizona, said, “Humans have a strong instinct to ignore scientific findings, until those discoveries challenge the stories we tell each other about ourselves.”  This tendency to ignore earth-shattering discoveries that fundamentally change how humans see themselves is a behavior that is as old as human existence itself.  Read more

Healing Energy: Radium in America, a New Digital Exhibition at the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

Dr. Robert Abbe (1851-1928)
Dr. Robert Abbe (1851-1928)

Throughout history, the Fellows of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia have been at the forefront of many advancements in the history of medicine, not least of whom was Dr. Robert Abbe, a pioneer not only in the field of plastic surgery, but also in the use of radium in medical therapy.



Jeffrey Womack, a Library volunteer and doctoral student at the University of Houston, and Tristan Dahn, Digital Projects Librarian at the Historical Medical Library, explore the discovery of radium by Pierre and Marie Curie, and tell the story of early experimentations with radium, including Dr. Abbe’s self-experimentation, and the use of radium in such “health” products as the “Radium Emanator.”

Pamphlet advertising The Saubermann Radium Emanation Activator, circa 1900.

Abbe’s long correspondence with Marie Curie culminated with her visit to the College in May 1921, during which Curie donated the piezo-electrometer currently on display in the Hutchinson alcove of the Mütter Museum.

Quartz piezo electrometer, donated to the Mütter Museum by Marie Curie in 1921.
Quartz piezo electrometer, donated to the Mütter Museum by Marie Curie in 1921.

The exhibit may be viewed at or by going to

Jeffrey Womack is a doctoral student at the University of Houston, completing his dissertation on the development of radium and x-ray therapies between 1895 and 1935, under the direction of Martin Melosi. His recent publications include “Nuclear Weapons, Dystopian Deserts, and Science Fiction Cinema,” in Vulcan: The International Journal of the Social History of Military Technology 1, No. 1 (2013; Bart Hacker, editor), and “Miracle in the Sky: Solar Power Satellites,” in American Energy Policy in the 1970s, (Robert Lifset, editor; Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014). He is also a contributor to the Encyclopedia of American Environmental History. Jeffrey is currently based in the Philadelphia area, where he teaches at Drexel University.

Tristan Dahn is a recent graduate of the Library and Information Studies program at McGill University. He joined the Library staff in September 2015, and is currently overseeing the digitization of 20th century state medical journals through the Library’s partnership in the Medical Heritage Library. Tristan also is leading the Library’s experiments in the digital humanities.

Cleaning Up Bad Data and Finding Hidden Collections: How ArchivesSpace Makes Our Archives Accessible

As is the case in so many libraries and archives, the manuscript collections at the Historical Medical Library used to be difficult to find, let alone search. Some were available through the College website as (essentially) text files. Unless a researcher knew the name of the collection he or she wanted to consult, it was virtually impossible to find the correct information.

The old interface researchers saw when searching our finding aids
The old interface researchers saw when searching our finding aids.

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Special Collections Aren’t For Only Librarians and Archivists

October and November were busy months for the Historical Medical Library! We launched our blog, announced that our collection of anthropodermic (human skin) books is the largest in the United States, held several impromptu pop-up exhibits, and hosted an Archives Month Philly event.

Our pop-up exhibits have been received with enthusiasm and we love surprising Museum visitors with the opportunity to visit the Library and see our collections. The exhibits in October were focused on the concept of “monster” as used as a medical term over the past 500 years, and culminated in our Archives Month Philly event, “The Monstrous, Fabled & Factual: Exploring the Meaning of ‘Monster,’ 1500-1900.” (You can read our previous post about Archives Month here.)  The exhibits in November displayed our “Favorite Things.”

This year was our first time participating in Archives Month Philly. It was fantastic to invite everyone, show off our collections, and talk about them with our peers. We feel like our Library has been “hidden” for so long – especially to the general public – and Archives Month was the perfect opportunity to show people that we exist and have interesting collections!

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