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Idiots, imbeciles, and morons

Monday, January 10th, 2011

One of the more interesting finding aids to come my way in recent months was the finding aid for the Elm Hill Private School and Home for the Education of Feeble-Minded Youth records, from the College of Physicians Historical Medical Library. If you think that name isn’t politically incorrect enough, it was originally called the Institution for the Education of Idiots, Imbeciles, and Children of Retarded Development of Mind. The name of this institution generated a lot of discussion between Holly, Courtney, and me on how the meanings of words have changed over time. Elm Hill was founded in 1848 and closed in 1946 with only one name change. This means that feeble-minded was still a legitimate term in the mid 20th-century. Once I started digging into the different clinical terms that have been used over time (including the most recent terms: intellectual and developmental disabilities), I became even more interested.

First, the terms feeble-minded, idiot, imbecile, and moron were all clinical terms that were in full use at the turn of the century. Idiot, imbecile, and moron corresponded directly with a patient’s “mental age.” “Mental age” is an intelligence test score that describes the patient’s ability in terms of what is an average level for a certain age. This concept is still alive and well in different games such as Brain Age, a game for the Nintendo DS that tests players with different math games, and even Sudoku.

Now back to idiots, imbeciles, and morons. In the early 1900s, Dr. Henry H. Goddard proposed a classification system that linked the terms idiots, imbeciles, and morons to specific mental ages. An idiot was the lowest with a mental age of less than three years. An imbecile was next with a mental age of 3 to 7, and a moron was one with a mental age of 7 to 10. These terms also corresponded with IQ score ranges. Idiot was below 30, imbecile was between 30 and 50, and moron was between 50 and 70.

What’s interesting is these definitions survived with different clinical terms. Idiot became profound mental retardation, imbecile became severe mental retardation and moderate mental retardation, and finally moron became mild mental retardation. The IQ score ranges have been shifted slightly to account for the extra term. I couldn’t find a year or time period when the terms began to fall out of use but it seems to be in the 1950s. During the 1960s, the term “retarded” began to gain some of its derogatory connotations.

While doing some research on these terms, I came across the Journal of the American Medical Association, Volume 64, Issue 19, which dates from 1915. In the “Queries and Minor Notes” section, M. T. from New York asked, “What is the correct usage of the word ‘feeble-mindedness?’”

The Journal’s answer gave a small history of the use of the term. It said that feeble-mindedness has been used freely to describe mental defect and only in the beginnings of the 20th century did anyone attempt to give it a standard definition. In 1904 the British Royal Commission for the Feeble-minded recommended that the term be used to describe all “mentally defective children who needed institutional care, in the three ascending grades of idiot, imbecile, and feeble-minded proper.” As we have learned moron came to replace “feeble-minded proper” as the clinical term of choice. It was the American Association for the Study of the Feeble-minded that changed feeble-minded proper to moron in 1906. The Journal also noted that moron was still not completely adopted by the medical community even in 1915.

Over the past few decades, mental retardation has been slowly fading in favor of “mentally challenged,” “intellectual disability,” and “developmental disability.” Although this discussion has been going on for about thirty years, only in 2006 did the American Association on Mental Retardation change its name to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

So to sum up, “feeble-minded” was the umbrella term used to describe individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, with “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “moron” as the three degrees of disability. This concludes a state-of-the-art psychology lecture from 1906! And I think I will stick with the long, unwieldy terminology of today!

Samuel X Radbill collection

Monday, November 8th, 2010

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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.

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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.

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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.

Lessons Learned from minimally processing at College of Physicians of Philadelphia

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

A month ago, Becky Koch and I finished our first “official” minimal processing project at the College of Physicians.  The records, The College of Physicians Office of the Executive Director, amounted to 112 boxes.  Overall, it was a good selection for minimal processing, with the exception of restricted materials.  This being said, there was one thing I learned about minimal processing that seems to illustrate how it should and should not be done.

The issue is the difficulty of processing with a partner while trying to get a job done as quickly as possible.  Our method was to divide the work and conquer it equally and quickly.  This was not a good method because we were not coordinated with one another on what particular name a folder should be labeled or the type of series it should be placed under.  Do we call it financial, administrative, programs…etc.  Our vocabulary and thoughts on the overall collection and arrangement were not synonymous (how could it be) and without it, both of us thought of our own individual ideas and labels.  This is also problematic later on in the collection because as the records are processed, there are usually some preliminary ideas which do not always end up in the final product.  This led to a very large amount of rearranging and re-titling when we finally put the collection together intellectually.  This problem led me to realize that if an archivist is processing with a partner, almost all folder ideas, series ideas, and titles need to be discussed thoroughly while processing so that the two archivists are not processing one collection using two different organizational and title schemes.

Fortunately for both of us, the following records we processed, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod records at the Lutheran Theological Seminary were processed with much more discussion over what each of us thought were parts of the organization and we discussed titles in detail.  This made the processing and organizing less complicated and created more fluent folder and series titles.

Minimal Processing and Sensitive Materials: A Tricky Situation

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

Unknown size: small.

At the College of Physicians we processed a collection of administrative records from the Office of the Executive Director of the College.  The collection almost entirely consisted of administrative records, and we came across everything from correspondence and memos, to meeting minutes and financial documents.

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Processing this collection went relatively smoothly.  Very little refoldering had to be completed, and most files were already labeled and in some kind of order.  The records were in good condition so there was no major conservation or preservation issues to be concerned about.  We did need to go through an extensive process of reorganization though, as this collection was accessioned at different times and many records needed to be interfiled.  We also came across several boxes of files that were unlabeled, or not in files whatsoever.  Yet perhaps our most pressing problem concerned restricted records.  This collection contained donor information, financial and budget information, and copies of resumes and cover letters for applicants of past job searches.   As we processed this collection we marked anything we thought might be sensitive information as “restricted,” erring on the side of caution, thinking that it was best for librarians at the College to know that these documents exist and then decide for themselves the proper access policies.  Although we felt this was a good solution for restricting these records, in practice this policy was not entirely effective.   While some folders were obviously full of sensitive information (such as budget sheets etc) and were clearly to be restricted, we found other restricted documents mixed in with regular, non sensitive materials.  This fact brings up two issues: due to time restraints we could not take the time to separate these mixed folders into restricted and non restricted materials so we had to restrict access to entire folders, even if there was only one page of sensitive information.  This means that a significant amount of should-be accessible information has become inaccessible.  Secondly, there’s a very good chance that we did not see some sensitive information that was mixed in with regular records, and therefore this information will not be labeled as restricted.  Due to the mixed nature of these records and the guidelines of minimal processing, this was sadly unavoidable.  Using minimal processing techniques, it would have been impossible to examine every record in every folder, so some restricted information is bound to have slipped through the cracks.

After discussing the situation with the head librarian, it was decided that folders labeled as restricted will be examined by the librarian or archivist when a researcher requests access.  It will then be decided whether the documents are truly sensitive, or how much of the file is accessible.

The Changing Face of the College of Physicians Library

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

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Today, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia is known throughout the world for its disturbing, yet fascinating Mütter Museum.  However this was not always the main draw of the College of Physicians, which was founded in 1787 as America’s first medical organization. Throughout most of the institution’s history, physicians and other medical professionals came to the College to teach and conduct medical research. The College’s Library played a crucial role in supporting these functions, as it held both extremely rare medical texts, as well as contemporary medical journals.  Over the last few decades however, the Library has shifted its focus from a medical library for physicians, to an independent research library dedicated to the history and heritage of medicine. The College of Physicians Library records documents this shift, demonstrating how an old institution can still offer a rich learning experience for modern researchers and the public.

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One of the ways the Library reached its audience was through the publication “Fugitive Leaves,” a newsletter dedicated to the Library’s unique and historic collections. Published irregularly from 1935 to1996, the newsletter relied on Library books and illustrations for its fascinating articles.  The Library records contains several printings of the newsletter, as well as photographs of images used.

The Library has also supported exhibitions at the College of Physicians, providing materials for exhibitions such as “Emerging Infectious Diseases: Ancient Scourge/Modern Menace,” “Exploring Therapeutic Resources in Colonial North America,” and “Only One Man Died” (an exhibition on Lewis and Clark).

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The Library records was one of the largest collections of the “Hidden Collections” project. At times, finding all the items in the collection proved a challenge, however the Library staff was very accommodating in allowing our team to make full use of their space. This was also my last collection working with my teammate and student processor Leslie O’Neill.  It was a pleasure to work with Leslie, and we all wish her the best of luck in her future career as an archivist!

Frank Hartman papers at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

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The Frank Hartman papers at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia is a fascinating collection. It made me consider radioactive elements from multiple new perspectives. To be honest, I have not spent a ton of time thinking about radioactive elements. However in the 14 hours I spent processing Hartman’s papers, I thought about them a lot–and that is just one of the many things I love about archives.

Hartman was primarily involved with radium. Over the years, he owned two companies which provided radium supplies and dealt with both the mining companies and the users. As one might suspect, since the papers are housed at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, a lot of these users were of a medical ilk. The collection contains tons of materials on the benefits doctors foresaw for radium, especially in treating cancer, etc. But Hartman also saw–and studied–the ways in which this great new product could do damage. As a result, the collection is a balanced and fascinating study of radium from the early 1900s to the 1970s. Based upon this collection, radium seems to have affected almost every aspect of life from commerce, to energy, to medicine, to wars, and to public health, to name only a few.

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Among the amazing contents of this collection is material on Marie Curie and her family as well as some photographic prints of fellow scientists Madame Kuroda and Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen. Some truly great photos (almost certainly reprints) exist and I was a bit troubled by Marie Curie’s lovely and haunting face. Without a question, though, the most incredible component of this collection is Hartman’s Radium Diary, in which he recorded his activities as a “Radium Hound,” searching for–and almost always locating–radium that was mistakenly or carelessly disposed of in the medical field. Now there was a new perspective on radium in our country’s history! This diary is an absolutely amazing piece of information–it is almost certainly a totally unique document and its informational value must be immense.

The processing of this collection was very successful. It had originally been housed at the Holy Family Archives and someone there partially processed it before transferring it to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. I needed to folder and arrange the last series, but a lot of the really hard work was already done. I processed this collection in exactly the time allotted (always a happy moment) and I think it is really ready for research. I cannot wait for someone to really look at the Radium Diary.

The Mutter Museum records at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

In March, Forrest and I began processing at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. This is a historic and impressive institution to be working at, and we are looking forward to the many collections that we will be processing over the upcoming months as well as working with the wonderful staff of the library.

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Our first collection was the Mutter Museum records, a collection that measured, pre-processing, about 28.75 linear feet. The Mutter Museum records (1887 to 2006) is a collection comprised of sixteen series. This collection contains material relating to the Mutter Museum’s operations and history such as correspondence, activity and visitor records, reports, photographs, catalogues of the collection, and event programs and flyers. The sixteen series are the following: “Activity and Accession Records,” “Catalogue of the Mutter Museum,” “Correspondence,” “Curator Reports,” “Education,” “Elizabeth Moyer,” “Ella N. Wade,” “Events,” “Exhibitions,” “Index of Collection,” “Journal on Giants,” “Staff Newsletters,” “Thomas Dents Mutter Lecture,” “Visitor and Group Records,” Miscellaneous,” and “Gretchen Worden.”

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This collection was an excellent choice for minimal processing. A large majority of it was already processed, however we did find portions that were completely unprocessed and required extra time to folder and arrange. After processing, the collection measured 16 linear feet and took 54 hours to process.

I found the Mutter Museum records to be an excellent collection for those studying the impressive and fascinating history of the medical museum, as well as the history of medicine, and specifically, medical deformities and oddities.

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Also of note in the collection, is the “Gretchen Worden records” series. Worden began working at the Mutter Museum in 1975 and was appointed Head Curator 1982. She is best known for her role as Director, a position which she held from 1988 until her death in 2004. She appeared several times on the David Letterman Show and was very well known both locally and nationally for her role in the growth and expansion of the museum. For researchers studying Worden, this series illustrates her life, work, and great passion for the Mutter Museum and its mission.