“What Happened in Medicine?” Medical students ask Philadelphia
By Kelly Salman, photos by Rawy Shaaban, Queen’s medicine class of 2021
“The history quiz is due this weekend?!” a classmate pulled it up on his phone, while a few followed suit on laptops. We were waiting for the bus to take us to Philadelphia and while my peers debated the turbulent past of drug advertising, the rest of us talked about what we were excited to see. Many had plans for dramatic poses on the “Rocky steps” or near the Liberty Bell.
“What even is the liberty bell?” I shamelessly asked while googling the best spot to find cheesesteaks. The real reason we were heading over the border was for a history of medicine trip, the continuation of a long tradition for Queen’s Medicine students, one that started in 1996.
I can’t lie and say I’ve always appreciated history. Although I could fool you, or scare you, with my wide-eyed ramblings about how cool the plague must have been, history is an interest I’ve found late. But along my route to medicine, something romantic about the past has drawn me in, and I got the impression during this trip that I wasn’t alone. Perhaps it has something to do with entering a field that makes you take an oath to an ancient Greek guy, but as a group medical students seem somewhat enamoured with their own history.
Contrary to popular belief, history waits for no one, and we started our adventure early Saturday morning, coffees in hand. Pennsylvania Hospital was a great place to set the tone; I challenge anyone to sit in an old surgical amphitheatre and not get swept up in historical daydreams. It helped that our guide painted an incredible picture for us as we sat on elevated benches, peering down at a classmate sprawled out on the operating table. It’s the details that get you… for instance, the floor would have been covered in wood chips for soaking up, well, you can imagine. Or that the hospital opened its doors to those of the public curious to observe the spectacle. In a different life, I wondered, how many of us would have been in that audience.
We continued to a stately mansion, famous for housing a man modestly named “the Father of American Surgery”, or to his friends and family Dr. Philip Physick. The guide here had a slightly more blunt approach, but it fit with the narrative he was giving. As we perused Dr. Physick’s various inventions (surgical instruments and… soda), he told us about how uncommon it was for a patient to survive surgery in those early days of the field: “He tried some neurosurgery, but often ended up accidentally nicking a blood vessel and then it’s ‘you’re going to get very sleepy now’”. I left with the unsettling impression that surgery in the 18th century sounded a lot like making a recipe from scratch – trial and error.
If you’ve ever idly wondered what a slice of Einstein’s brain looks like, then the Mütter Museum is for you. So, basically everyone. It’s a medical smorgasbord, filled with oddities and ailments through time: atypical skeletons, preserved organs, a jar of human skin (why?!), and even a giant human colon. Perhaps more interesting was the history of how society responds to such anomalies, in an exhibit dedicated to the folklore and varied cultural attitudes surrounding birth defects across the world. No photos allowed, but check out their website for some extraordinary highlights!
As millennials we often forget what books look like, so it was a real treat to see the libraries. We marvelled at the mahogany grandeur of the Pennsylvania Hospital library, but my favourite was less insta-worthy (partly because pictures were ‘discouraged’). While half of the group looked through beautiful, hand-drawn anatomy pop-up texts, the rest of us were led along a meandering pathway through the College of Physicians of Philadelphia to a door reminiscent of a submarine airlock. We quietly filed into the largest collection of books I have ever set eyes on. It was a room of steel bookshelves, dusty and dimly lit, filled with medical literature and journals from the past. Peering through the holes in the floor, the stacks continued infinitely further down than my eyes, and frankly my brain, could comprehend. I tried to imagine all of the words below our feet, and thought it must be akin to what an astronaut feels looking back at the earth.
I know my words can’t compete with those of my medical ancestors hidden away in Philadelphia. But hopefully if you take anything from them, it’s an inkling of interest into the world behind us. Good and bad, whimsical, and downright gruesome at times, the history of medicine is incredibly important. Because, well, in the words of someone more eloquent than me “History never really says goodbye. History says ‘See you later.”
Oh and in case you were concerned, I did find time for a cheesesteak.