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PACSCL Hidden Collections Processing Project » Blog Archive » Drexel University College of Medicine legacy finding aids: Parcelsus and Mary E. Walker

Drexel University College of Medicine legacy finding aids: Parcelsus and Mary E. Walker

Written by Garrett Boos on August 6th, 2010

Of all the different collections I have created finding aids for in Archivists’ Toolkit, two from the Drexel University College of Medicine stand out.  They are Hering’s Paracelsus Collection and the Lida Poynter collection on Mary E. Walker.  I had to do a fair amount of research to write detailed biography notes for each of these collections.  Hering’s Paracelsus collection is Dr. Constantine Hering’s personal collection of books that were first donated to Hahnemann University Hospital.   The collection is composed of books on, about, or written by the medieval doctor, scientist, and alchemist,  Philip Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, who is best known now as Paracelsus.  The Lida Poynter collection on Mary E. Walker is composed of the research notes and a draft of Poynter’s unpublished biography on the suffragist, feminist, and Medal of Honor winner Dr. Mary E. Walker.  These two collections show the variety of material that can be found in just one archive.

Hering’s Paracelsus collection’s finding aid provided many challenges.  First it was a card catalog that had to be converted into a finding aid that would fit nicely in Archivists’’ Toolkit.  The cards were scanned and then made into a PDF that was then made into a Word document from which I could cut and paste the information.  As many people know, the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) process creates some mistakes in the text.  Also, only one or two cards were in English.  Through the process, which was actually sometimes more entertaining than tedious, I became well acquainted with old German and I enjoyed the chance to practice some high school and college Latin that I haven’t used in a long time.

Once the container list was entered, I began to do some research on Dr. Hering and Paracelsus.  Dr. Hering, the “father of homeopathy in America,” was interesting in his own right and he is the topic of another collection at DUCOM.  The breadth of activities in which Paracelsus was involved make him a fascinating topic, and there is a surprising amount of information that has survived about him.  He lived his short life in the early 1500s, a time period when people considered the ancient Greek and Roman doctors, Hippocrates and Galen, the authorities on medicine.  Paracelsus challenged many of the assumptions and established practices of the time, and helped bring medicine as a science beyond the ancient traditions.  He is credited with being the first one to say “it is the dose that makes the poison.”  Understanding this about Paracelsus makes it easy to see why the “father of homeopathy in America” wanted to learn everything he could about him.

The Lida Poynter collection on Mary E. Walker is about an equally fascinating individual.  Mary Walker was born in 1832 and died in 1919.  Her father had all his daughters work in the field with him and his son.  Since they were working in the fields, he wanted his daughters to be able to move freely and comfortably, so he banned his daughters from wearing heavy dresses and corsets.  He was also an amateur country doctor who believed most women’s fashions at the time were bad for their health.  This idea stayed with Mary and she devoted much of her life to dress reform.  She first experimented with trousers underneath dresses, then short skirts, eventually she abandoned the dress altogether and wore men’s suits that she altered to fit her frame.  She even wore a short skirt over trousers and a frock coat at her wedding in 1855.  She also had the word obey removed from the service, which in 1855 was remarkable.

Her father encouraged Mary to study medicine when she showed a talent for it.  When Mary was old enough to go to college, she went to Syracuse Medical College, the first medical school in the country to admit women.  She graduated as an M.D. and went on to open her own practice, which was not very successful.  At this point, the Civil War was getting underway and this is when her life gets even more interesting.

First she served in Washington D.C. as a volunteer in the army hospitals.  The doctor in charge was so impressed with her ability that he recommended that she be appointed an assistant surgeon, but she was repeatedly rejected because she was a woman.  After leaving and then coming back, she was finally given a commission and sent to Tennessee as the first female doctor in the Union army.  While serving on the front lines, she would often go unescorted and unarmed into enemy territory to offer medical aid to civilians.  She believed by doing this she would help turn the civilians to the Union cause.  She was also acting as a spy for the Union and reporting Confederate troop movements.  Eventually she was captured by the Confederacy, and later released as part of a prisoner exchange.

For her work with the Army, she was the first, and only, woman to be awarded the Medal of Honor.  In 1917 her Medal of Honor was rescinded along with 910 others when the requirements for receiving the Medal were changed.  She refused to return her Medal and wore it until her death in 1919.  Often police would stop and question her because she wore pants and was considered to be impersonating a man.  During these encounters when they would ask for her name, she would point to it on her Medal of Honor that was always pinned to her lapel.  In 1977, after many years of work by her grand-niece and a distant relative, President Carter restored her Medal of Honor.  This blog post only scratches the surface of this amazing woman’s life.


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