Back in the summer, I processed the Samuel X Radbill collection at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Radbill was a pediatrician who practiced in south Philadelphia and was closely affiliated with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He was also a scholar, interested in the history of medicine, especially the history of pediatrics. Radbill’s collection (which is actually the third such Radbill collection to be accessioned by CPP) houses three of his personal collections related to the history of medicine: pamphlets, brochures and articles; medical art and other pictorial works; and medical journals and texts – all dating from the 1700s to 1900s. Taken together with his research and writing (also part of the collection), the materials here suggest a deep and unrelenting interest in medical history, one that transcended the mere collecting of antiquities.
Of particular note, was Radbill’s collection of medical pamphlets, brochures and articles. Despite the fact the pamphlets were collected by Radbill — not created by him — what he collected and how he maintained his collection revealed a lot about him. Though he had an obvious affection for antique printed matter, it seemed to me, Radbill collected for the information contained in the materials above all else. For one thing, dates and types of printed material ranged significantly. Even more telling, he commonly intermingled eighteenth or nineteenth century original printed materials on the then contemporary practices of a given medical topic with twentieth century articles and newspaper clippings on the history of that topic. There was also evidence that he maintained some kind of a subject-based catalog system, though I did not have time to figure it out.
The collection was housed in a variety of cardboard boxes, some very obviously purchased to organize the materials and others must have just been available (he made use of a Blue Swan lingerie box and empty shirt boxes from Philadelphia’s Wannamaker’s and Strawbridge’s department stores). Radbill’s boxes of pamphlets; however, were stored in record cartons by a former archivist, rendering an already difficult collection to use, completely inaccessible. As a result, this part of the collection benefited most from processing. Though the pamphlets are far from fully identified (this is minimal processing, remember), they are generally arranged and identified by subject, housed in file folders and are now completely physically accessible and ready for use.
In that part of the collection, I uncovered what has turned out to be, in my opinion, one of the most hidden treasures in this whole project, and I found it quite by chance. Filed among Radbill’s pamphlets and clippings about famous Jewish physicians and medical references in the bible (Radbill filed all of these items under the heading ‘Jewish’), I uncovered a letter from a Jewish, woman physician in Austria, Rita Smrcka, who was seeking escape from the Nazis. She wrote to Radbill in 1938:
“…In my desperate situation, I had the audacious idia to write to a stranger whose address I found by chance. I love my profession [she was a physician] exceedingly and it is my ardent desire to continue it. Are you able and would you be willing to aid me? Your s[e]ccour would consist in garanteeing my living but I assure you that I shall endeavor to don’t be by no means a charge for you…”
Without processing, most likely, this letter would have never been found. In fact, it was pure luck that it was found in minimal processing. I just happened to be looking more closely at the items in a particular box and I just happened to decide to open an envelope because it was unlike anything else in the box (we all know, in minimal processing, this rarely happens). The document received special treatment because it was an obvious outlier; but one that could have easily been missed.
You may be interested to know that after I found the letter, Annie Brogan, librarian for the Historical Medical Library at the College of Physicians, did some detective work. Turns out, Radbill did try to bring Rita Smrcka to the United States, unfortunately, without success. She was sent to Auschwitz, but she survived and returned to Vienna after the war.