Columbia University Health Sciences Archives Visit

Humanities for STEM: Using Archives to Bridge the Two Cultures Divide

On October 13, 2017 the Research Collaborative visited the Columbia University Medical Center Health Sciences Archives and Special Collections located in the Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library. Stephen Novak, Head of Archives and Special Collections, hosted the group. During our visit we viewed some of the special collections in the Geraldine McAlpin Webster Reading Room and discussed issues of access to medical records within the collection.

Columbia Health Sciences Archives page

The Columbia University Medical Center Archives and Special Collections collects materials documenting the history of health sciences in general and at Columbia University Medical Center in particular. The archive includes records and materials from the four schools in the Medical Center:

Along the walls of the Geraldine McAlpin Webster Reading Room is part of the 27,000 volume rare book library in the history of the health sciences dating from the 15th into the 20th century (which can be seen in the background of the images below.)

Stephen Novak flips through Volume 2 of Presbyterian Hospital Surgical Case Books

The Archives and Special Collections also has holdings from Presbyterian Hospital (1868-1997), the medical school’s main teaching hospital since 1911 Babies Hospital (now Children’s Hospital), and the Neurological Institute of New York.

We viewed the Surgical Case Books from Presbyterian hospital as well as autopsy reports from 1918, which document influenza related deaths from the early 20th century.

Other extensive collections in the archives include the Auchincloss Florence Nightingale Collection, the Freud Library, the Hyman Collection in the History of Anesthesiology, and the Webster Library of Plastic Surgery.

Jerome Pierce Webster (1888-1974) was a professor of surgery at Columbia from 1928 to his death and was the first director of plastic surgery at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center.The Webster Library of Plastic Surgery includes more than 5,000 books, at least 29,000 reprints, and over 100,000 photographs and drawings and documents the history of plastic and reconstructive surgery from the 15th into the mid-20th century.

As a historian and bibliophile, Webster collected many of the books that this collection now holds. Also within the collection is a number of artist sketch books illustrating plastic surgery operations at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. Almost every type of plastic operation can be found in detailed and vividly colored drawings in the sketchbooks. Ivan Summers has been identified as the artist for most, if not all of the drawings in the series.

We concluded our visit by viewing the psychiatrist’s Ethel Spector Person’s papers relating to her work with transsexuals and transvestites in the 1960s-70, followed by a discussion of records that include Protected Health Information (PHI) as defined by the US Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) which can prohibit access.

Research Collaborative members and greater Humanities for STEM community, please be sure to check out the Columbia University Medical Center’s Collections and add your thoughts on ethical considerations for medical and psychiatric records to the comments below!

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