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veritasHarvard University Library Notes, For Harvard Library Staff, Number 1336 March 2007
A dissertation on the effect of blood-letting, from the Papers of Benjamin Waterhouse, 1786-1836. Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard Medical School.

A dissertation on the effect of blood-letting, from the Papers of Benjamin Waterhouse, 1786-1836. Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard Medical School. View the object.

Scrapbook of clippings relating to health and popular medicine, 1874-1883. Boston Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard Medical School.

Scrapbook of clippings relating to health and popular medicine, 1874-1883. Boston Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard Medical School. View the object.

Thomas Jefferson's 1800 letter to Harvard's Benjamin Waterhouse is among the manuscript materials included in the forthcoming Contagion: Historical Views of Contagious Disease.

Thomas Jefferson's 1800 letter to Harvard's Benjamin Waterhouse is among the manuscript materials included in the forthcoming Contagion: Historical Views of Contagious Disease.

Harvard University Library Notes / March 2007 / No. 1336

Progress Report—
OCP's Contagion: Historical Views of Contagious Disease

The Open Collections Program (OCP) in the Harvard University Library has reached the midpoint in developing Contagion: Historical Views of Contagious Disease, the third multifaceted, online collection developed since the OCP's inception in 2002. The Contagion collection is made possible by the generous support of Arcadia.

Harvard's new Contagion collection will gather historical materials from the University's libraries and museums into a web-accessible format that illuminates a series of globally significant outbreaks of contagious disease. These historical "episodes" include the cholera epidemics of the 19th century, the 1918 influenza epidemic, syphilis (before and after 1910), tuberculosis in 19th-century Europe and America, and yellow fever (notably the 1793 outbreak in Philadelphia). The collection also documents important developments in public health around the globe through the early 20th century and the evolution of the germ theory of disease.

By searching across the range of Harvard libraries and museums and linking otherwise disparate historical materials through a single web interface, the Contagion collection demonstrates some of the hidden strengths of Harvard's holdings. The collection will provide an online gateway to approximately 1,600 digitized books, 10,000 manuscript pages, selected incunabula, and a range of other historical materials relevant to significant epidemics in the US, continental Europe, Panama, Manchuria, and elsewhere.

While these historical materials clearly offer valuable insights for students of the history of medicine and for researchers seeking an historical context for current epidemiology, Contagion will also prove to be a valuable social-history resource for students of many ages and disciplines. The collection is expected to be available online late in 2008.

The Contagion collection capitalizes on valuable Harvard library materials on the construction of the Panama Canal as a catalyst for understanding and preventing tropical diseases. In 1904, when the United States under President Theodore Roosevelt took over from the French the project of building a canal across the isthmus of Panama, malaria and yellow fever had already killed an estimated 12,000 workers.

The Contagion collection documents the work of William C. Gorgas, a surgeon in the US Army, who was appointed to eradicate these tropical diseases and to ensure the health of the workers. Gorgas succeeded, and, by 1906, yellow fever was uncommon and deaths from malaria and other diseases had dropped significantly. His ambitious program included the construction of quarantine facilities and the free care of approximately 32,000 patients each year.

Contagion: Historical Views of Contagious Disease will also include important background materials on understanding inoculation and vaccination. For example, these materials offer a privileged view of Harvard's Benjamin Waterhouse, who, in 1800, became the first American to test Jenner's smallpox vaccination method, while serving as one of the first three professors on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School. Waterhouse also taught others how to vaccinate, and the Contagion collection includes several letters from Thomas Jefferson to Waterhouse acknowledging Jefferson's receipt of cowpox vaccination material from Waterhouse and documenting Jefferson's failures and successes at vaccination.

"Harvard's library and museum holdings can shed much tremendous—and often unexpected—light on contagious disease," stated Sidney Verba, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the University Library. "In Contagion, each episode documents medical treatments and scientific biases. But perhaps more important, these episodes offer unique perspectives on the ethics of treatment and on prevailing social attitudes toward disease and those who suffer from it.

By helping us to understand the social-history and public-policy implications of disease, Harvard's new Contagion collection can inform our understanding of the science and the public policy of epidemiology today."

In developing Contagion: Historical Views of Contagious Disease, Harvard's Open Collections Program has been guided by a distinguished committee of Harvard faculty members:

  • Allan Brandt, Amalie Moses Kass Professor of the History of Medicine and Professor of the History of Science—Harvard Medical School
  • Charles Rosenberg, Professor of the History of Science and Ernest E. Monrad Professor in the Social Sciences—Faculty of Arts and Sciences
  • Barbara Gutman Rosenkrantz, Professor of the History of Science, Emeritus—Faculty of Arts and Sciences

Through Harvard's Open Collections Program (OCP), the University advances teaching and learning on historical topics of great relevance by providing online access to historical resources from Harvard's renowned libraries, archives, and museums. OCP's highly specialized "open collections" are developed through careful collaborations among Harvard's distinguished faculty, librarians, and curators.

The goal of the Open Collections Program is to offer a new model for digital collections that will benefit students and teachers around the world. Two "open collections" are currently online: Women Working, 1800–1930 (see http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/ww), and Immigration to the United States, 1789–1930 (see http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/immigration).

In addition to Contagion: Historical Views of Contagious Disease, an additional collection, entitled the Islamic Heritage Project, is under development. Harvard University established the Open Collections Program in 2002, with funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The program has received subsequent support from Arcadia and from Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud.

 

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