Studying the History of Medicine

Elinor Hickey '12 is spending her summer conducting research at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum thanks to a grant from the John B. Hurford '60 Humanities Center.

Photos of gunshot wounds, missing limbs, broken bones, giant tumors and gangrene of the face are just some of the many gruesome images Elinor Hickey ’12, an anthropology major, is sorting through this summer during her internship at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and The Mütter Museum. Hickey, who is one of 20 Haverford students who received funding from the John B. Hurford ’60 Humanities Center to pursue summer internships, is collecting and identifying images to enhance the Museum’s collections.

Founded in 1787, The College of Physicians and The Mütter Museum are dedicated to preserving the history of medicine and educating the general public and medical professionals about medicine as both a science and as an art.

“The Museum treads a fine line between intellectual and macabre, demonstrating a respect for the human body and condition by preserving and displaying the evolution of illness, disease, medicine and medical research over time,” says Hickey. “The collection is full of amazing, gruesome specimens that force visitors to confront their own mortality and appreciate how far medicine has come.”

Hickey’s main project is to assist in the publication of a book on the College’s place in American history, which is aimed at the general public rather than medical professionals. She spends her days searching the College’s library collection for photos of physicians involved in wars and the variety of gruesome medical maladies that they treated. She is also conducting research on Medical Trade Ephemera, the advertisements, pamphlets and catalogs for physicians dated pre-1925, when legislation restricting fantastical claims about medicine did not exists. Hickey has found many of the advertisements—“Asbestos, Great for Insulation,” or “Radium Water: Guaranteed Safe”—very amusing. “Hindsight is killer,” she says.

Over time, Hickey’s interest in medicine has shifted from its practical application to its history. However, she still loves to work in the field once in a while. Last summer, she took a hands-on anatomy course at Johns Hopkins University that included a cadaver lab. “Dead things don't scare me,” says Hickey. But during her research at the College, she has truly come to appreciate the modern advances made in medicine.

“Every day I thank goodness for modern medicine,” she says. “I am grateful for antibiotics and vaccines like I have never been before.”

--Jacob Lowy ‘14