We Are Connected, History Connects Us.

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Nov 082019

by Caren Teague, Archives Intern

History in its entirety is the essence of all human connection. In my week-long journey as an intern here at Drexel’s Legacy Center Archives, I have explored a multitude of cased medical specimens, criticized a Barbie, and taken a stroll through 50 years of the life of Ruth Wilf, a practicing midwife. My time here has since embarked on a quest to evaluate my findings and explain the connections I have developed with each primary source I have come in contact with. This journey has allowed me to connect with others through history, and realize the deeper significance and impact of research. Let’s start with Barbie.

Dr. Barbies from 1987 and 1993

In July, a group of new employees came down to our department to take a tour of the archives. Directed by myself, Matt Herbison, and Sabrina Bocanegra, the group of young women was able to delve into the evolution of women representation in the medical field. They saw first-hand a senior thesis from Ann Preston at Woman’s Medical College of PA from 1851. We transcribed the memoir of Elizabeth Cisney Smith which explained the double standard and gender roles between her and her husband as physicians. We flipped through a sexualizing anatomy textbook that was banned from the shelves after its release in 1971, and we criticized Mattel Inc. and their sexist portrayal of “Doctor Barbie” in the 20th century. 

Ann Preston’s Medical school thesis, 1851

Throughout our time together, the members of our small group interconnected. We shared personal stories that one would never guess could relate, or have even happened, within our families. As we traveled through the archives we connected through experience, emotions, and opinions, and when we separated, we had formed a bond that would resonate with us forever. Now for Ruth.

Ruth Wilf, CNM, PhD, a birth educator and longtime midwife at Lifecycle WomanCare in Bryn Mawr (aka Bryn Mawr Birth Center), has recently become one of our donors of important archival material. At 88 years old, she has accumulated and provided to us a rich collection of books, training materials, photos, and all of the documentation that reflected her activities as a midwife. Before Ruth, I was not at all familiar with many of the technical or intimate details regarding childbirth. But just by skimming the titles of books, and finding small, but meaningful, notes to her I knew who she was. One thing that stuck with me was a photo album of births that she donated. Though a bit surprised at first, seeing such an intimate and beautiful moment in a photograph enlightened me, and exposed me to a world I had never been in before, I felt as though I knew her patients just as well as she did. Seen here are photos of one of many births captured by Ruth. Faces have been blurred for privacy reasons.

Ms. Wilf is addressed by many in such high regard. I reviewed notes sent to her expressing gratitude and thanking her for inspiration and dedication to her practice, women, and the African-American community. She has worked for different entities throughout her life, and she has dedicated decades to public service and compassion in her field. I have never physically met Ms. Wilf, however, after several hours of cataloging some of the hundreds of books that she donated to us here at the Legacy Center, I feel as though I have known her all her life. While I have never met the honorable Ms. Ruth Wilf, when I do, I know that I will recognize her. Through her history, I have developed a spiritual connection with her. Through my week-long journey, I have been inspired, enlightened, and connected. So thank you Drexel, and thank you, Dr. Wilf. And if you the reader, ever come in contact with her, tell her my name is Caren, and I am an admirer.

 Posted by on November 8, 2019

Subject: 26-D-4’s Box 92 Discoveries

 From the collections  Comments Off on Subject: 26-D-4’s Box 92 Discoveries
Oct 242019

-guest post from summer intern Whimsy Mark-Ockerbloom

Identifying objects in the Archives can be a struggle. I see it as solving a mystery, piecing together a puzzle, and falling down a rabbit hole of medical devices, professionals, and treatments. In the time I’ve worked on this project, I’ve opened old tomes, unclasped bags of suspicious pills, unexpectedly come upon lots of sharp objects, been excited, disappointed, and most often, been really glad I wear gloves. There’s nothing like the excitement of opening a box identified as a ‘bone saw’, then the letdown of holding a rib spreader, then the uncomfortable realization that at some point this was holding someone’s chest cavity open. Again, I’m often reminded what a good thing it is that I wear gloves.

When I first opened the box labeled “Hottenstein M.D.”, my target was an object listed only as “Unidentified Medical Instrument”. I idly noted the listing for “2 wooden boxes with medical instruments” that was equally as vague. One part of identifying a specific object is figuring out which object you’re supposed to be identifying, and sorting the nasal speculums from the obstetric forceps from the ‘unidentified medical instrument with screw on one end’. So I sort out the items that are already identified by noting the contents of boxes and consulting Google for the more complicated medical words. I separate the vague wooden boxes from the rest, one of which contains a small operating kit and the other, more of a drawer, containing parts of a balance scale. The strange hole on the top of the drawer catches my interest.

Image of two boxes though to contain medical instruments.

Two wooden boxes thought to contain medical instruments.


Medical instrument??

With all the other objects sorted out, I find the “Unidentified Medical Instrument”. From a cursory glance, I have no idea what this thing is. It’s a cylindrical metal object, with a strangely shaped tip. A lever at the bottom raises and lowers the stick supporting said tip, and I cannot for the life of me figure out what medical purpose this thing could serve. Unable to think of any keywords for a google search, (weird cylinder medical thing doesn’t provide any useful results for some reason), I flip through my book of surgical instruments in the hopes of stumbling upon something of similar appearance. Nothing matches up. Is this thing even a medical instrument?

Frustrated, I turn my attention to the wooden boxes, adding their clarifying information to their original inventory. It’s then that the strange hole pulls my attention again. On a whim, I pick up the ‘unidentified medical instrument’ and position it in the hole. It’s a perfect fit. The non-circular shape of the hole allows for the lever to be adjusted, in turn adjusting the height of the instrument. Finally putting two and two together, I empty the drawer again, and begin constructing what is now, clearly, a balance scale.

But what does a balance scale have to do with medicine? In an extremely professional fashion, I started playing with the weights in the drawer, measuring them against each other. Searching for more things to weigh, I opened the small box of “Aluminum Weights” and found what looked like small, foreign coins in varying sizes, labeled “drachms”. Chasing down this new, draconian-sounding lead brought me into the history and practices of the apothecaries.

Picture of drachms and grains, related to text.The ‘Drachma’ originated in Greece as both a currency and a unit of measurement. The value of money was represented by the value of the coin itself, so the weight of the silver that made up the coin corresponded to how much the coin was worth. Over time, the drachma persisted as a unit of measurement in apothecaries, although its name changed, sometimes the classic ‘drachma’, sometimes simply ‘dram’, and in british apothecaries, the “drachm”. The drachm remained a part of british apothecary measurements until 1858, when the British Pharmacopoeia ordered usage of the weight discontinued. Drachms, as a standardized form of measurement, appeared commonly in physician’s recipes. Similarly to how today, one may see recommendations of a teaspoon of salt or a cup of flour, a physician may have read a recommendation of opium, one drachm by weight. I certainly hope no one mixed their recipes and ended up putting opium in their poundcakes. 

Medical recipe using drachm symbol.

Recipe book of Dr. J. G. Schoch, using the symbol ʒ (or ℨ) for fluid drachm.

Page of a notebook showing a recipe using symbol for drachm.

Pharmacy (formula) notebook from Theodore Geiger collection, with recipe illustrating the use of the symbol ʒ (or ℨ) for fluid drachm. Likely dated around 1880.

It’s not every day that I get to find two supposedly unrelated objects and fit them together, completing a puzzle that I didn’t know existed. It’s not every day I get to go down a medical rabbit hole, learning about ancient forms of measurement and reading recipes for concoctions no physician today would attempt to touch. But sometimes, the archives reveal one of their mysteries.



General Medical Council (Great Britain), British pharmacopoeia, 1864. https://archive.org/stream/b20405558

David Hottenstein collection, Drexel College of Medicine Legacy Center.

 Posted by on October 24, 2019