We’re pleased to present this guest post from Tim Nutt, Director of the Historical Research Center (HRC) at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. All photos are courtesy of the HRC.
The Historical Research Center (HRC), a unit of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) Library, is the state’s only repository exclusively dedicated to the preservation of Arkansas’ medical history. For over 40 years, the HRC has collected materials and artifacts of physicians, nurses, and other health professionals and organizations from around the state.
Currently, the HRC has about 500 linear feet of archival collections, including the professional papers of Dr. Edith Irby Jones who, when admitted to the University of Arkansas School of Medicine in 1948, became the first African American admitted to a Southern white medical school. We are also honored to be the repository for the collection of M. Joycelyn Elders, M.D., United States Surgeon General from 1993- 1994. Jones served as a mentor to Elders, and the HRC is especially proud to preserve the legacies and the professional relationship of these significant physicians.
Another signature collection is that of Dr. Oliver Wenger, a U.S. Public Health Service official, who operated the government’s venereal disease clinic in Hot Springs, Arkansas in the 1920s, the time when the city was home to gambling, prostitution, and gangsters, including Al Capone. The collection, though, does not focus solely on individuals and organizations, such as the Pulaski County Medical Society (established 1866) and Arkansas State Nurses Association. The Historical Research Center also serves as the repository for the institutional archives of UAMS.
Papers, photographs, and other paper items are complemented by the HRC’s extensive artifact collection. Ranging from a Civil War-era medical toolset to a collection of historic dental instruments to a portable anesthesia machine and everything in-between, the artifact collection documents almost every facet of medical history. One of our favorite artifacts is a WWII-era baby carrier used to protect preemies. Looking more suited to carrying a cat than a baby, the carrier was equipped with a woolen blanket, a thermometer and room for a hot water bottle. For air circulation and to protect the baby from Arkansas insects, the carrier has screened vents. It is one of our prized artifacts and one that we show to visitors. Another favorite is a scrapbook of pathology specimens that shows the devastating effects of various diseases on intestines. The scrapbook was compiled by Dr. Edwin T. Bentley in 1864, in his capacity as a surgeon with the U.S. General Hospital in Alexandria, VA. Assigned to Little Rock after the Civil War, Dr. Bentley helped found the Arkansas Industrial University Medical Department (now UAMS) in 1879. Upon his death in 1917, the scrapbook was discovered among his estate. The specimens contained in the scrapbook correspond to cases presented in the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion (Washington, 1870-1888).
One of the HRC’s collecting priorities is quack medicine. To that end, we actively seek out materials that document pseudo-medical practices. One of my favorite quack devices in our collection is the Electra Vita Body Battery Belt, which was sold in the early 1900s. Marketed toward men who were nervous, run, weak, or unambitious, the belt provided that much needed jolt of energy. The belt wrapped around one’s waist and provided continuous electrical pulses, courtesy of batteries (which kept a permanent charge) tucked inside the belt’s lining. The true medical benefits of the Electra Vita Body Battery Belt were non-existent, except for maybe a placebo effect. Who would not move around more (which would give the impression of more energy) if one was being constantly shocked?
In addition to the archival collections, the HRC also has a History of Medicine book collection. This general collection, acquired through donation and purchase, currently numbers around 6,000 volumes.
Many people do not realize that Arkansas has a rich medical history. To educate visitors about that history, the HRC installs exhibits around the UAMS campus. One recent exhibit highlighted rarely-seen artifacts from our holdings. This exhibit proved to be extremely popular as most people saw items for the first time or ones that brought back fond memories. One, in the latter category, was the 1980s-era “R.F. Ant” mascot head. R.F. Ant (the R.F. stands for Refuse) was the creation of a UAMS professor of pharmacy and visited schools to teach children about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. The red bulbous ant head sitting prominently in the glass case drew many to the exhibit.
We also publish digital exhibits so researchers and visitors who are not on the UAMS campus can utilize and enjoy our holdings. Issues from 1870-1922 of the Journal of the Arkansas Medical Society are viewable on our digital collections, as well as many of our photographs and artifacts. Currently, we are digitizing photographs from the M. Joycelyn Elders, M.D. collection to tell the story of this influential physician. The Historical Research Center’s digital collections are located at: https://hrcdigitalcollections.contentdm.oclc.org/.
In 2016, the Historical Research Center opened its new research room and archival storage on the fifth floor of the UAMS Library. Before this, the HRC’s public and work spaces were cramped and not inviting. Now, we have a welcoming atmosphere with room for researchers. This new space, combined with a higher visibility, has resulted in about 50 researchers a year.
The Historical Research Center is fortunate to have an active friends’ group. The Society for the History of Medicine and the Health Professions (SHMHP) was established in 1982 with the mission of supporting the Center. The Society sponsors an annual grant program that ensures the HRC’s collections are used in historical research. SHMHP’s main activity is a yearly lecture and dinner. This event, co-sponsored by the Historical Research Center, attracts about 65 people and features a catered dinner and presentation on a medical history topic (usually related to Arkansas). The Society also co-sponsors many of the HRC’s events throughout the year, including an Open House in October (for American Archives Month and National Medical Librarians Month) and periodic lectures.
The Historical Research Center has a wonderful staff—we would not be able to do all that we do without Suzanne Easley (Assistant Director and Archivist), Calee Henderson (Digital Initiatives Librarian), and April Hughes (Administrative Analyst). Together, we make a good team in preserving and teaching about Arkansas’s medical history.
If you are in Little Rock, I encourage you to stop by and visit us. We look forward to seeing you!
About the author: Tim Nutt is currently employed as the Director of the Historical Research Center at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Previously, he was employed as the Head of Special Collections at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and as founding Deputy Curator of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System. He also served as the founding Managing Editor and Staff Historian of the award-winning online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. Nutt received a B.A. in History from the University of Central Arkansas and a masters in Library Science, with an emphasis on archives, from the University of Oklahoma. He is a past president of the Arkansas Historical Association and a Certified Archivist.