Saturday, July 30, 2011

Hiding in plain view...

While working on the revamp of our gallery of diagnostic instruments, prompted by the generous gift of Don Blaufox's incomparable collection, I went in search of early images of the stethoscope in use. I knew that one of the earliest images appeared in 1819 in the Dictionnaire des sciences medicales. I recalled that Jackie Duffin reproduced this image in her masterful biography of Laennec, To See With a Better Eye (p.212, fig. 9.1). She cited its source as an article on "pectoriloque" by F. V. Merat in the Dictionnaire des sciences medicales vol. 40 (1819).

I checked our online catalog and found we didn't have that dictionary. Struck out, or so I thought. That is, until I found myself in the office of Dzwinka Holian, our library associate director this week. There, on shelving in her office, sat the full 60 volume run of the Dictionnaire des sciences medicales. For some reason it has been uncatalogued, but we're remedying that.

In the meantime, I now have my hands on the original and it's a pretty funny little print. You don't get a sense of that from the image found in Duffin's book. She focused narrowly (understandably) on the scene of the stethoscope, and not the plate in its entirety. The whole plate is full page while the sketch is a very small afterthought, added to what looks like the plate of the stethoscope that appeared in Laennec's treatise on mediate auscultation of 1819. The thing I like best about this whole scenario is that we have a piece of the true cross, as it were. Something from the very dawn of the modern physical examination. And it's not an exact mechanical rendering, but kind of a whimsical take on the physician - patient encounter, with period charm and flavor.

We've got other later period images, lithographs, of percussion and auscultation that appeared in the Western Lancet (Cincinnati, 1850) and have been seldom seen, and we'll be using them in our exhibition, too.

As my friend and colleague Thomas Soderqvist says, exhibits should come from research on collections. When it does, we often more about the wonderful things in our collections than ever suspected...

Jim Edmonson