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PACSCL Hidden Collections Processing Project » Blog Archive » American Women’s Hospitals photo collection available for research at DUCOM
 

American Women’s Hospitals photo collection available for research at DUCOM

Written by Courtney Smerz on May 13th, 2010

Unknown size: small.

  It seems almost impossible to believe, but EIGHT months ago, at the onset of our adventures in minimal processing, Eric Rosenzweig and I processed the American Women’s Hospitals (AWH) photograph collection, which is housed at Drexel University, College of Medicine (DUCOM), Archives and Special Collections.  Much to our regret, though processing was completed and a finding aid produced, no blog post was written for it at the time, which is a total shame.  It is a rich, evocative visual resource that uniquely documents the international work of the AWH from 1917 to 1982.

AWH developed out of the War Service Committee of the Medical Women’s National Association in 1917.  It was started to finance American women physicians for war work, offering medical and emergency relief to refugees and, later, to provide general public health services around the world.  Throughout its history, the agency focused its efforts on emergency medical care, maternity and children’s welfare, and preventive health-care programs.

In its earliest years, during and after World War I, AWH personnel labored extensively in France, Albania, Greece and the Near East to provide medical assistance to impoverished communities further devastated by the war.  Work in those countries continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s with added services in Serbia, Russia, Asia and the rural United States. The outbreak of World War II returned the agency’s attentions to Western Europe as projects of emergency medical relief were made necessary in war zones.  After World War II, the AWH shifted its focus from direct relief to financing training and employment of native female medical personnel in countries like China, Japan, Haiti, India, Southeast Asia and the Philippines.  Eventually, the organization curtailed its emergency medical services in favor of on-going prevention programs.  For example, AWH was involved in the study and prevention of pellagra, a disease resulting from malnutrition that effected the rural southern United States in epidemic proportions in the early to mid 20th century.

There’s no doubt that the women of the AWH were amazing!  And the photos found in the photograph collection evidences their amazing work in a way that textual documentation alone could not — together the photographs paint a very real and vivid portrait of the organization and its efforts over sixty-five years.

The collection is comprised of hundreds of photographs documenting field and clinic work conducted in Africa, Albania, Bolivia, France, Greece, India, Korea, Russia, Switzerland, Turkey, The United States, Vietnam and Yugoslavia.  A majority of the images depict AWH members treating patients whose health suffered from the devastation of war in Europe and elsewhere, especially after WWI, and issues of health resulting from abject poverty and malnutrition. Photographs of work conducted in the United States document the “Rural Services” division of the AWH. The earliest images in these files depict visiting doctors and nurses who traveled into remote regions of the rural south, administering health care and preventative health care education to families at their homes.  Later images depict health care provided in established clinics, like the Woman’s Maternity Shelter in Greenville, South Carolina.

As an MPLP candidate, this was a good choice.  A majority of the arrangement and identification was already done for us, which left a little bit of time to just enjoy the pictures!

Interestingly, during processing there was some healthy debate over the potential use and value of the collection.  It was argued, because the images were produced and used by the publicity department of AWH, that the composition and subject matter was likely carefully selected and staged to showcase AWH field work in an entirely positive light, and therefore the collection was not necessarily an honest or good or interesting resource.  It is true, many photos in the collection were obviously enhanced for printing in brochures and other AWH promotional materials.  However, I would argue, that most archival resources (whether written correspondence or organizational records or photographs) can offer only one point of view – that of their creator.  And what creator doesn’t have an agenda?  Furthermore, it should be noted that words can be and often are just as carefully selected as a photograph is staged.  In this case, realizing the images to be what they are – internally produced and maybe at times staged images – makes them an incredibly powerful resource that could be used to inform a variety of research topics.  Besides, images of injured and ill people are honestly revealing (and heart-wrenching) no matter what.  Whether candid snapshots or carefully constructed compositions doesn’t change the fact that the subjects were in fact starving, sick or hurt and that AWH tried to help them.

Needless to say, I personally feel that this is a fabulous resource depicting the work of AWH in a way that textual records can not.  For those of you out there who, like my colleague, do not always trust images, you’ll be glad to know that there is a complimentary collection of textual records of the American Women’s Hospitals that is also available for research at DUCOM.

 

2 Comments so far ↓

  1. Regarding the debate about whether the AWHS collection is an “honest or good or interesting resource”, I agree with Courtney’s perspective that point of view always need to be considered in reviewing any collection. I see the AWHS collection’s publicity slant as a reflection on the need to for the organization spreading the word about and raising money for their international endeavors – the photographs and stories were their tools for doing so. In fact, we have a researcher currently using the AWHS Photo Collection (thanks to all on the Hidden Collections project for making this collection much more accessible, she is using the finding aid!!) and she noted that the photographs document a change over time in how the women presented themselves and their work, which in turn reflected change in the organization and its position in the world of medicine and relief work.

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