Secret Lives of Interns: Field Trip to Johns Hopkins University

Posted on July 13, 2010 by

A blog by Julie Bertling


When Intern-Wrangler-Jobi assembled the interns for our recent field trip to Johns Hopkins Hospital and Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives, it wasn’t immediately obvious how our destination fit into a museum-studies lesson. My mind’s eye envisioned many-hundreds-of yards of paper files, but I soon found my group entering the revolutionary institution, which was filled with many treasures yet to be uncovered. Thanks to material culture archivist, Andy Harrison, we interns were lucky enough to be granted a sneak-peek at the riches the general public doesn’t usually get to see at Johns Hopkins.

Someone call a doctor, because this place bleeds history!

Brittney Baltimore finds commonality to her basement-dwelling at JMM, as she points to a familiar Jewish name while visiting Hopkins

Our tour began with the archives itself, in which one could easily spend hours leafing through the case files. One interesting bit of information that hearkens to my prior experience as insurance claims-adjuster involves HIPAA. In terms of museum exhibitions, the 2004 Title II of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) injects itself as a nuisance to anyone wishing to display historical documents. This act protects the health information of individuals, both living and deceased, and because of that some materials may not be suitable for exhibition. Sorry, but we were also instructed not to take photographs of these records for fear of violating HIPAA.

One thing we CAN show you however is the room which houses the vast number of physical objects stored for future use. A few items of interest included the skeletons of both cat and sloth for anatomy’s sake. On the more unusual end, a pediatrician’s stool fashioned to imitate a cow’s udders, and my personal favorite: the very first defibrillator!

Check out that medical technology!
As we emerged from the storage area, we were greeted by a portrait of Alfred Blalock. Exhaling a plume of smoke with cigarette firmly affixed to his right hand, it was easy to embrace the title based on today’s standard of smoking. Yucky fumes aside, this doctor’s career is quite amazing. The progressive Blalock, crossing pivotal social barriers for the time, worked with female doctor Helen Taussig and African American, Vivien Thomas, to perfect the Blalock-Thomas-Taussig Shunt.

Alfred Blalock – Lived until 1964, when according to Andy, he died of cancer near the stump of the left ureter that had metastasized to other parts of his body. (Andy cheerfully told us that he wasn’t violating HIPAA
because this fact was well documented before the law’s inception)

Recognizing much potential in Vivien Thomas, Blalock began to groom his ambitious janitor to eventually fill the role of surgical technician.

Vivien Thomas

The duo worked with Helen Taussig to revolutionize treatment for Blue Baby Syndrome by first experimenting with dogs. Dr. Helen Taussig, Blalock’s female colleague, later became the first woman president of the American Heart Association. (See more here.)

With over 10,000 artifacts strewn across 40 buildings, our trek continued across the campus and on to the hospital for more historical goodies. We were awestruck when we settled in William Halstead’s room, and intently absorbed Andy’s rendition of Halstead’s experimentation with cocaine as an anesthetic. Saddened to hear of his subsequent addiction to a then-little-known-drug, we were also amazed to learn of his monumental contributions to the world of medicine, such as being the first doctor to clamp off arteries during surgery, as well as inventing the infamous rubber glove.

Interns sitting in Halstead’s Room
Interns pause to discuss the view

As a hospital first, historical objects are not at the top of the mind while visiting the building, but are very accessible to those who keep their eyes peeled. Andy points out the plethora of artifacts as we pass them, and gives us a brief account of their origin. A grouping of phone booths circa the 1940s is used frequently by Hopkins medical residents, who abscond to the dark sanctuaries and steal a quick snooze.

Phone Booths

In one VIP board room, chairs personally belonging to founder, Johns Hopkins, and prominent Dr.William Osler, is available for any derriere to perch in.

Intern Rachel Gilman occupies William Osler’s Chair

Johns Hopkins’ favorite chair
Our guide Andy briefly mentions the disadvantages of having artifacts so near to the public as he shows us a grand portrait of Johns Hopkins in the hospital lobby; for instance, an eager patron wished to memorialize himself by scrawling his initials on Hopkins’ left shoe. In another foot-related case, the giant Jesus statue occupying the same room suffers from a shiny right foot, as passers-by touch the statue which in time damages the piece. An even more extreme story involves a patient bathing in opulence, after having hauled an antique chair into his shower.

Andy w/Hopkins portrait

The JMM interns descending upon the Jesus-filled-room.
The non-denominational hospital opted in 1896 to
add the giant likeness to fill in empty space.

John Hopkins may be the best known institution in Baltimore’s history, but we had a lot to learn about the rich history of the prestigious hospital and college. Andy did a fantastic job imparting the social advancement of minority Americans in healthcare, as well as the founding doctors’ revolutionary contributions to modern medicine. The inclusion of these then-controversial groups further emphasizes why Johns Hopkins leaves a great legacy as a first class institution. Overall, our trip to Johns Hopkins illustrated how a museum professional’s expertise can be applied to various non-museum institutions to preserve artifacts and material culture for future generations to enjoy.

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