May 2011

Don’t believe everything you read

Many photographs in the archives are unidentified leaving archivists and researchers the arduous task of determining the who, what, where, and when by using additional materials to establish context.

Occasionally, a photograph will be identified but parts of the label will be so obviously incorrect that the validity of the rest of the information is also questionable.

Such is the case with this photograph.


A handwritten note on the back reads: “Medical Faculty of 1868 and 1869.”

A few initial observations about this seemingly innocuous note are

  1. There is no indication when this note was written on the back of the photograph but it is unlikely to have been recorded at the time the photograph was produced;
  2. There is no attribution to the photographer or previous owner of the photograph that would help indicate if there is any validity to the label;
  3. If these men are medical faculty, there is no indication in the note or in the photograph that they were part of the University of Minnesota or even in the state of Minnesota.

Next, the years given are also suspicious in the context of medical education in Minnesota. First, they predate the College of Medicine at the University by nearly 20 years. Initially organized in 1883 at the University of Minnesota as an examination board, the College of Medicine did not formally begin teaching courses until 1888. Second, the years 1868-1869 precede the establishment of the first preparatory medical school founded in 1870 by Alexander Stone in St. Paul.

Finally, none of the men look familiar. The most common names associated with the establishment of the medical education at the U of M are Drs. Daniel Hand, Charles Hewitt, William Leonard, and Perry Millard. None of these men, in my opinion, are pictured. The only man who looks somewhat familiar is the man standing on the left-hand side. To me, he looks like a young George French. Dr. French moved to Minneapolis from Portland, Maine and joined the St. Paul Medical College at Hamline University in 1880.

It is possible that this photograph has the wrong date. It is possible that this photograph is not related to the University of Minnesota or any other medical school in the state. It is possible it may not be related to medical education. It is even possible that all of the above are true.

Context in archival material is important for accuracy and authority. These nameless men demonstrate what happens when the context is lost.

Making clean water flow

Walking across the Washington Ave Bridge spanning the Mississippi River, you may happen upon the following sidewalk cling:


U of M researchers are committed to making clean water flow freely, from the headwaters of the Mississippi to the slums of Mumbai. Learn more at

It may come of some surprise that this 21st century global public health perspective originated at the University of Minnesota during the nineteenth century as a result of the friendship between the first university president, William Watts Folwell, and Charles Hewitt, Minnesota’s first secretary of the State Board of Health.

Folwell and Hewitt first became acquainted as officers in the Union Army. After the war, both men became involved in the administration at the University. While president, Folwell worked closely with Hewitt and several other men including Perry Millard to propose the establishment of a college of medicine to the Board of Regents in 1882.

It is clear that these two men shared a bond both personally and professionally. Folwell, who was a faculty member of the political science department, showed great interest in not only the politics of urban sewage sanitation but also the public health implications of clean water and the need for sustainable practices. There is little doubt that his friend, Hewitt, had a hand in formulating his opinions on the power of clean water on public health.

Read Folwell’s article “The Disposal of City Cleanings” below. Note in his closing,

The city will not be allowed to discharge its filth into the Mississippi river indefinitely. Might as that stream is, it is not big enough to dilute and deodorize the sewage of a hundred towns and cities seated on its banks… It is none too soon to attend to the problem of caring for [our] own filth.

It is also interesting that with all of Folwell’s forward looking discussion of the ties between water sanitation and public health, his imagery of “brutes” and “savages” is emblematic of nineteenth century chauvinism and of no use today.