Every office tells a story. Family photos, funny posters, collections of treasured textbooks—they all give a clue to the owner’s personality. When we visited the office of Jeffrey Susman, M.D., dean of the College of Medicine and vice president of Health Affairs and Community Health at NEOMED, we discovered a portal into a past of wacky pharmaceutical cures and touching artifacts of community health.
"Moses Brought before Pharaoh's Daughter," William Hogarth etching after a painting of 1746, for the Foundling Hospital, London. The print is a gift from Dr. Susman's parents.
Early purveyors of alleged cures had a sure winner with the name "Vital Force."
Why do you collect?
Part of the appeal is in looking at the history and where we have come from: looking at the many false starts and the things that we thought were true that turned out not to be. I think it guards against the hubris that physicians seem to acquire. We could benefit from recognizing we only know what we know. The medicines we know today may be considered the poison of the future. To treat colic, babies were given Mrs. Winslow’s Syrup, an elixir containing senna, rhubarb, anise and morphine. People used everything from cocaine to marijuana and got addicted to these medications, much like today’s problems with opioids. Medicine and science is in constant evolution. Sometimes what is being touted as the latest and greatest falls out of favor. Think about leeches. For wound debridement today, we’re going back to them!
What about your photographs and books?
The pictures of children in Honduras and the Amish in farm fields, as well as the photographs collected by the Farm Security Administration during the Depression, reflect my interest in public health and community health. They are all about the personal side of medicine and they remind us that the thing that doctors offered patients back then was just to be there. It wasn’t that they had cures or prevention for diphtheria or anything like what we have today.
The collection reflects my interest in the impact of the arts and humanities upon medicine. You’ll find books like The Doctor Stories by William Carlos Williams. You’ll also find the lived experience of being a health care provider in Michael Crichton’s Five Patients (his second book after The Andromeda Strain). We need to be respectful of the patient’s experience and mindful of our reaction to the joy, pain and suffering of others. We have been given a sacred trust by patients, but that privilege also carries burdens – like when a patient is dying or a child has been born with an egregious problem.
It seems that the collection also reflects your interest in mental health.
At NEOMED we want to train our young physicians to see the whole person. These pictures and mementos are all reminders that we have a greater responsibility: people’s lives hinge on our ministrations and our support. If you are going to take this career on, you should have some seriousness. But also have a sense of humor! I like the picture of the man clamping his head to show he has a headache, or looking at his tongue to see if he needs a tonic.
Lumbago, dropsy – there are a lot of old-timey words in the advertisements. Back then, the words on the bottles were supposed to be part of the mystique: only the initiated would know what they meant. Today, our culture is more about empowering people to take part in their own health care.
Are there more items at home?
Yes, my wife is pretty tolerant. She collects vintage costume jewelry.
These ceramic vessels are reproductions distributed as gifts by pharmaceutical companies.
Aspirin is one medication that has withstood the test of time.
Belief in the efficacy of herbal remedies gas risen and fallen in various eras.
The terms "safe" was used loosely. Many elixirs contained morphine, cocaine or marijuana.
Do you have a unique or special item, or a collection in your space that you would like to share with the NEOMED community? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vital Force is republished from Ignite, Vol. 17.1, Spring 2016.