With and Without the White Nursing Cap

Trained nurse

“Be a Trained Nurse” Recruitment Poster from World War I with nurse knocking on a door labeled “opportunity” (LOC print)

My latest article on The Ultimate History Project takes a look at the history of field nursing, particularly nurses and health aids who worked for the Office of Indian Affairs, the predecessor of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

As part of the nurse’s or nursing student’s uniform, the white cap often is synonymous with the history of nursing. However, I didn’t see many white nursing caps when I was working with the papers of the Field Nursing Program in Oklahoma, probably because public health nurses who worked “in the field” often wore their regular clothes for travel. This is just one of many details that requires a larger context beyond the confines of a single archival collection.

As a researcher, I often discover the container list or finding aid is not enough to tell me about the historical context of what I’m looking at. By context, I mean background information about the people, places, and events. This lack of information is not surprising. No one who processes a collection can include references to every detail mentioned in the documents, photos, etc. Books, scholarly articles, and digital resources can help both to broaden the story and to offer more specifics.

But where to find the history of nursing, First Aid, and Native American community health in Oklahoma during the interwar years (between WWI and WWII)? Check out the recommended readings at the end of my UHP article “By Paddle, By Wagon, By Car” to learn more.

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Where is the history of medicine in Texas?

Texas has a rich history of medical education, research, and innovation. Yet, much like the candy-cane, striped shirt-wearing Waldo, the history of medicine, public health, and its allied sciences is often hidden in plain sight.

This history can be found in the architecture of hospitals and medical schools like Cooks Children’s iconic blue roof in Fort Worth and Old Red at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. Or the minor procedures and major surgeries that comprise Western medicine today like the heart transplant pioneered by Houston surgeons Denton Cooley and Michael E. DeBakey. It can also be found in the programs and educational resources available to Texans, like those for diabetics and their families, coordinated by the Texas Diabetes Council.

Medical Arts_Dallas

Postcard of the Medical Arts Building in Dallas, TX. Built in 1923, it was demolished in 1977. The National Library of Medicine has over 4,000 postcards related to medical history online. (Images from the History of Medicine, NLM)

When I was doing graduate research into the history of medicine and public health in Texas, I discovered a number of important local resources. However, a lack of transparency made it difficult to identify and access these resources. This frustration made me curious to learn more. Several medical librarians were kind enough to reply to my informal query about the types of resources they have and the most common reference questions they receive.

Here’s what I found out…

A good rule of thumb for the history of medicine is: it’s kept where it was created. Whether you are looking for old medical journals, biographies of physicians, or historical information on hospitals and medical associations, your best bet is to look for the nearest medical school or public health library.

Major medical centers and universities located in cities like Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, and Galveston are where the majority of historical resources can be found. Extensive collections exist throughout the state in places like the John P. McGovern Historical Collection and Research Center in Houston and the Special Collections at UT Southwestern Medical Center Library in Dallas.

For example, biographical information on physicians is a popular research request. Medical school yearbooks and directories, like Polk’s Medical and Surgical Register of the United States, are important genealogical resources. Biographers and family historians can take advantage of the Texas Physicians Historical Biographical Database online thanks to the library at UT Southwestern. The McGovern Library also has Polk’s Medical Register and Directory digitized and available online.

Archives of past medical journals sit on the shelf at many medical libraries, but assorted issues are online through digital portals like The Medical Heritage Library, Texas Heritage Online, and The Portal to Texas History. A quick PubMed search can help you identify specific articles and dates to help you in your quest for older journal articles on health and medicine in Texas.

TDCedu

“Controlling Diabetes One Day at a Time,” Texas Diabetes Council education packet c.1990s

The history of public health at the state level is often less visible. Current public health topics have historical background that may not be included in up-to-date information and statistics. Unlike books on the subject, many of the primary sources (past reports, public health education material, etc.) tend be accessible only in a handful of places. Within Texas, these include:

  1. the public university library system — Published conference proceedings, reports, and education pamphlets get circulated throughout the library system as well as in state and local archives.
  2. the creating agency, governing body or professional association — Many, like the Texas Diabetes Council and the Texas Medical Association, include publication archives on their websites.
  3. retracing the bureaucratic maze to locate records within the state, county, or city archives — I recommend the TARO database for a search of Texas collections.

For more resources, check out these digital catalogs and online exhibits dedicated to the history of medicine in Texas.

  • The Texas Medical Association’s website Sites for Genealogists and Medical Historians includes helpful links to the history of medicine inside and outside Texas. (Beware, it can be difficult to find from the main page.)
  • UT Southwestern Library’s online exhibit using Omeka, “Medical Milestones in Dallas, 1890-1975,” includes great examples of the history of medical care and education in Dallas, plus an image repository.
  • The Blocker History of Medicine Collections at the UTMB in Galveston’s Moody Medical Library includes The Centennial Oral History Collection, celebrating Texas’ first university medical school.
  • The P.I. Nixon Medical Historical Library at UT Health Science Center in San Antonio has special collections for the history of medicine and university archives, including a Digital Archive.
  • Texas Woman’s University’s Woman’s Digital Collection includes photos and oral histories on nursing and TWU’s health science program.

Want to find the history of medicine in another state? The U.S. National Library of Medicine maintains a Directory of History of Medicine Collections by state within the United States and other countries. Also, for another state perspective, check out the newly launched History of Medicine in Oregon website.

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