Dr. Katharine Sturgis: A Pioneer in Medical Research

pf2_sturgis_001a_croppedWhen Dr. Katharine Rosenbaum Guest Boucot Sturgis was elected the first female president of the College of Physicians in 1972, it was one of only a series of firsts she had accomplished in her career as a physician, teacher, administrator, researcher, editor and consumer advocate. But Dr. Sturgis did not see herself as having accomplished anything special just because she was a woman. She once reflected, “I never looked at people as men or women or black or white.” Dr. Sturgis had great respect for all people while never complaining about how she had to compete and, ultimately, thrive in the male-dominated medical profession which she chose as her vocation.

She was born Katharine Rosenbaum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1903, and, at a young age, decided to pursue a medical career. She had to convince her skeptical father that medicine was a feasible vocation for a young woman. This was no small feat in an era where women were expected to be homemakers and not much else in the male-centric society in which she grew up. Not to be deterred, she convinced her father by making a dress from scratch with him knowing full-well that she despised sewing. Her father then relented and allowed her to attend college to study pre-med.

Katharine Sturgis, despite a debilitating two-year bout with tuberculosis which landed her in a sanitarium, eventually earned her medical degree from Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1942. Of her time at Woman’s Medical, despite her raising her two children alone, she once reminisced, “I never was given one iota of extra consideration, and I think that’s why I broke down with TB. I had to do everything everyone else did. There was no quarter shown.” This dogged determination to accomplish her goals despite obvious hardships would serve Dr. Sturgis well throughout the rest of her career.

While doing her residency at Herman Kiefer Hospital in Detroit, Dr. Sturgis came to the realization that research was her calling. She once reflected upon the neglect of research in the medical field, “Unfortunately, neither our profession nor the public has yet recognized the fact that we will never have enough clinicians for the sick unless we turn off the parade of illness.” Dr. Sturgis was to leave an indelible mark on the field of medical research before her career was over.

Dr. Katharine Sturgis’ years of research into lung cancer resulted in advances that came as a result of her participation in such projects as the Philadelphia Pulmonary Research Project. She was later to become a resolute advocate for cleaning up air pollution as well as an active naysayer on the dangers of smoking and its direct correlation to lung cancer. Dr. Katharine effectively lobbied for cleaner air standards from state and federal authorities while she served as the first woman president of the Philadelphia County Medical Society.

After serving as a board member of the College of Physicians since 1951, Dr. Sturgis’ tenure as president was short-lived due to health considerations. However, she left an ineffaceable mark on the College for her determined fundraising efforts and serving as chairperson of the Bicentennial Committee.


Dr. Sturgis’ awards and honors are too innumerable to mention, but two most precious to her were the prestigious Trudeau Award and her recognition as an Honorary Life Member of the American Lung Association in 1973. While reflecting upon her long and distinguished career in 1977, Dr. Sturgis humbly spoke, “I don’t kid myself that my career has made any major contributions to medicine, but as far as I am personally concerned, I’ve loved every minute of what I’ve done. I only wish I had more years in the field I love so much.” Dr. Katharine Sturgis was an exceptional doctor, advocate, teacher and researcher.

The Library of the College of Physicians contains a treasure trove of information on the life of Dr. Katharine R. Sturgis, a life that spanned such historically significant events as World War II, The Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and the United States Bicentennial. By researching her personal letters, correspondence, and newspaper articles, a student will get a real sense of how history unfolded through the words of such an outstanding person as Katharine R. Sturgis.


The links below will direct you to the catalog record or finding aid of the resource listed. Remember to check our library catalog and finding aids – these are only some of the great sources we have about Dr. Katharine Sturgis!


Primary sources

Katharine R. Sturgis Papers, 1948-1979
Call number: MSS 2/0355-01


General Correspondence of Katharine R. Sturgis, 1972-1974
Call number: CPP 2/002-02


Presidential Papers of Katharine Sturgis, 1970-1974
Call number: CPP 2/002-01


In Her Own Words: Oral Histories of Women Physicians
By Regina Markell Morantz-Sanchez, 1982
Call number: WZ 150 I35 1982

Secondary sources

Tuberculosis Medical Research: National Tuberculosis Association, 1904-1955
By Virginia Cameron, 1959
Call number: WF 1 NC277


Antibiotics and Antibiotic Therapy: A Clinical Manual
By Allen Elemer Hussar, 1954
Call number: QB 511


*Content written by Mike Mooney, Temple University Cultural Fieldwork Initiative intern

George Outerbridge: A Philadelphia Fellow in WWI France

– by Paige Randazzo, Digital Projects intern


The year 2017 marks the centennial of the United States’ entry into World War I. In memory of those Fellows of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia who served in times of war, the Historical Medical Library will be creating a geo-referenced digital timeline using the letters and photographs of College Fellow and World War I surgeon George Outerbridge (1881-1967). The collection was donated to the Library in 1972 after they were found by the residents of George Outerbridge’s former home.

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The roots of special education

Edouard Seguin and educating the “feeble-minded” in the 19th century

Note: Many medical terms used in the past – even through the first half of the 20th century – are words that we find insensitive or cruel today. Like any field of history, it is important to keep in mind the time period in which the texts were written and to not pin our 21st-century beliefs on those of the past.  As historians, it is up to us to observe, not to judge.

Students at the Elm Hill Private School and Home for the Education of Feeble-Minded Youth, circa 1893.
Students at the Elm Hill Private School and Home for the Education of Feeble-Minded Youth, circa 1893. From Records of the Elm Hill Private School and Home for the Education of Feeble-Minded Youth (MSS 6/013-01), Series 8.6, number 22 (box 61).

What is feeble-minded and what or who classifies an “idiot”? The word “idiot” was originally used as a medical term to describe people with intellectual disabilities, although it is used differently today. Other words that were used to describe people with intellectual disabilities were “imbecile” and “moron.” Doctors used these terms to describe the degrees of idiocy with “idiot” as the most disabled, followed by imbecile, and then moron as least disabled.

How was idiocy classified? Idiocy was classified in many different ways, and there were different types of idiocy. The different types of idiocies included Genetous idiocy, Microcephalic idiocy, Eclampsic idiocy, and more. Many people classified as “idiots” lacked certain brain functions, which could cause loss of hearing, smell, taste, sight, perception, and imitation. Some diseases could also change the size of a person’s head, such as Microcephalus, which causes shrinkage of the head, and Hydrocephalus, which causes the enlargement of the head.

Edouard Seguin was a doctor who stepped out of the box and did something others thought was hopeless: educating the intellectually disabled. Seguin was a 19th-century French-born American neurologist, and the first who founded a school for “idiots” called Seguin Physiological School. His schools were seen in many cities all over the United States, but his first school was founded in 1840 in Paris. He did this because he saw potential in the intellectually disabled and he had a great interest in mental diseases. Seguin’s work taught his students how to feel, smell, and hear different things, and taught them to talk or sign. Seguin founding the first physiological school inspired many doctors in the United States and Britain in the 19th-century to create schools for the “feeble-minded,” too.

Another school for the “feeble-minded” was Elm Hill Private School and Home for the Education of Feeble-Minded Youth, founded by physician Hervey Backus Wilbur in 1848 in Barre, Massachusetts. This school provided many things for the patients, including treatments and company. Different and interesting prescriptions were given to the patients, such as Fluid Extract of fucus vesiculosus, which was used for many things from weight loss to treatments for diabetes. This school didn’t only treat the patients, but also taught creativity in arts and crafts or dancing. Educational schooling was also provided, in the subjects of literature, geography, and arithmetic.

In the 19th century, one could be diagnosed as intellectually disabled as early as birth or due to gradual loss of intelligence. It was believed idiocy could be inherited, and although “idiotic” men and women rarely got married or had children, nearly 20 to 50 percent of “idiots” during the 19th-century were were thought to have inherited their disabilities. Marriages between relatives could create a defected baby even if both parents were healthy. Doctors believed some causes of intellectual disability included the mother going through trauma during delivery, and the mother drinking during the pregnancy. Doctors felt for a mother to prevent an “idiot” child, she needed to be at her best health and relax. The “feeble-minded” could be helped by seeking help from professionals, who would perform a variety of tests or surgeries to diagnose the disability and provide treatment.

The Historical Medical Library holds a variety of resources on the education of the “feeble-minded,” such as the Daniel Joseph McCarthy Papers (MSS 2/348). McCarthy was a doctor who believed that with proper exercise and diet that all “mental deficiency” would eventually go away. Another resource on the education of the “feeble-minded” is the book Leading and Select Cases on the Disabilities Incident to Infancy, Coverture, Idiocy by Marshall Davis Ewell. This book contains many different patient’s medical papers and their diagnoses when they were in school. More resources include other types of discoveries of the mind and mental diseases with pictures and personal diaries.

The links below will direct you to the catalog record or finding aid of the resource listed.  Remember to check our library catalog and finding aids – these are only some of the great sources we have about the education of the “feeble-minded”!


Primary sources

docbox-croppedRecords of Elm Hill Private School and Home for the Education of Feeble-Minded Youth
View the full finding aid: Records of Elm Hill Private School and Home for the Education of Feeble-Minded Youth
Call number: MSS 6/013-01


docbox-croppedDaniel Joseph McCarthy papers
View the full finding aid: Daniel Joseph McCarthy papers
Call number: MSS 2/348


docbox-croppedFred B. Rogers papers
View the full finding aid: Fred B. Rogers papers
Call number: MSS 2/354


Secondary sources

book-croppedLeading and select cases on the disabilities incident to infancy, coverture, idiocy, &c.: with notes
by Marshall Davis Ewell, 1876
Call number: Sadoff WA 308 E94L 1876


book-croppedThe mental affections of children, idiocy, imbecility and insanity
by William W. Ireland, 1900
Call number: Ni 143a


book-croppedIdiocy: and its treatment by the physiological method
by Edouard Seguin, 1876
Call number: Ni 50


book-croppedThe backward baby; a treatise on idiocy and the allied mental deficiencies in infancy and early childhood
by Herman Bernard Sheffield, 1915
Call number: Ni 359


Internet sources

PC-Computer“The Moral Treatment, Hygiene, and Education of Idiots”
by Elizabeth Picciuto
From the Ordinary Times blog, 8 April 2012


PC-Computer“The Classifications of Idiocy”
by H. B. Wilbur, 1877
Access provided by the Disability History Museum Library


*Content written by Tina To, Karabots Junior Fellows intern

Bringing Out the Dead: Adventures in Cataloging, Part I



– by Hend El-Santaricy, Library intern

In my quest to become a more experienced cataloger, I found the internship opportunity at the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia (HML) to be a perfect way to achieve my goal.  My project was to catalog the medical reprints and pamphlets described in this blog.  I started the cataloging process after the collection was initially sorted by another librarian.  This allowed me the privilege of spending all my time cataloging.

I started this internship wanting nothing more than a cataloging experience.  I have had opportunities to work on different collections before.  In every previous experience, I was able to delve into a special relationship with the collection, its history, its use, and its potential.  I knew I could perform my assignment at the HML well but I was not certain, though, if I could build a relationship with a collection about the history of medicine.  I was a stranger to the medical field.

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The Brains of the Operation: Processing the Records of the Office of the Executive Director

by Mary Hanes, Archives intern

The records generated by organizations provide important evidence about the organization’s history and function. In January of 2016, I started to process the College of Physicians of Philadelphia Office of the Executive Director records.  The Director oversees the everyday governance and administration of the College.  This includes overseeing the budget, strategic planning, special projects, and creating and maintaining relationships with other institutions. With so many responsibilities, the office generates a considerable amount of documentation, from correspondence to meeting minutes. The scope of my project includes processing boxes the Library received from the Office of the Executive Director and arranging them to better document the office’s administrative activities and governance duties.

Because the Executive Director’s Office produces so many files, the office keeps active records and sends the inactive files in boxes to the Library. Boxes arrive with varying levels of organization. Recently, the executive assistant to the current CEO requested minutes from a specific committee meeting. Although the material was located, it became clear that the collection needed processing to make it more accessible for current staff and future external researchers.

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