The Academic Health Center History Project documents and preserves the institutional memory and historical events that chronicle the development of health sciences education and research at the University of Minnesota.

Would you bite on this for science?

Giovanni_Borelli _Instrument.jpgThe strength of one’s bite and the force used to chew food appear to have intrigued dental students for centuries. The earliest investigation of jaw strength on record dates to 1681 in Rome by Professor Giovanni Borelli of the Jesuit College (see picture at right). The value of the early studies on bite force and jaw muscle strength was mainly in satisfying curiosity, however later interest existed in the effect of functional demands on tissue health and development.

Gnathodynamometer.jpgIn 1936, the University of Minnesota’s School of Dentistry determined that the principle difficulty encountered by researchers studying the muscles of mastication was the lack of an instrument to accurately measure the pressure exerted by the jaws. Along with the University of Minnesota Scientific Instrument Shop, the School of Dentistry developed the “Gnathodynamometer of the School of Dentistry, University of Minnesota”. Would you bite on this for science?

For more information on this instrument or on the School of Dentistry’s history, please visit the University Archives.

Drinking fountains

Before you take a sip, do you ever pause to wonder how clean the drinking fountain is?

In 1917, public health researchers had the same thought about the water fountains all across the University of Minnesota campus.

The 1917 report, “Drinking Fountains: Investigation of Fountains at the University of Minnesota,” by H.A. Whittaker and published by the United States Public Health Service looks into the sanitary conditions of the drinking fountains and offers recommendations on their improvement. The report identifies the source of the contamination as well as documents the occurrences of streptococci and B. coli.

And it names names, meaning, it gives the location of all the offending drinking fountains. Perhaps there is a fountain on the list that you still use every day.

The report found that all 77 fountains were improperly constructed and allowed for contamination by the consumer. Tests found 80% to be contaminated with strep and 11% to have contaminants not found in the supply water line. It concluded that drinking fountains were a source of transmission of communicable diseases that could be remedied.

Take a sip of water and read the report below.



Serendipity is always a welcome feeling when working with archival materials, although it highlights the enormity of information available and the reality that one can never know everything they have.

Take this example that happened to me this week.

The photograph below is of a house on Washington Ave that was used as the University Hospital prior to the opening of Elliot Memorial Hospital in 1911. This is the only known photograph of the building in the archives. The photograph was taken shortly before the building was demolished in 1929.


The second item is a photograph scrapbook created by Mercedes Grace Berrisford, a 1910 graduate of the College of Science, Literature, and the Arts.


Little is known about Ms. Berrisford. She was married to Paul Berrisford, a 1912 graduate of the Medical School, and is believed to be the photographer of the pictures taken in the scrapbook. The first part of the scrapbook has pictures taken in 1910 around the time of her graduation. They are mostly campus scenes with occasional self-portraits. While looking through the photos I discovered this picture of the then still open University Hospital at 303 Washington Ave. The sign is still hanging over the entrance.


It is difficult to know whether anyone else had ever come across this photograph and recognized it as the house on Washington Ave. It is also difficult to imagine a world where all of these millions of pages of material might one day be so interconnected that serendipity will no longer play a part. Until then, enjoy the feeling.

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.


A recent New York Times blog post highlighted the dilemma of whether or not Twitter messages, Facebook updates, and emails are protected from access by law enforcement the same way personal telephone calls and written letters stored in a person’s home. The current answer is that they are not. Our social life via social media is not within our means to control and can work against us.

This article appeared on the same day a document surfaced in the Dr. Robert G. Green papers at the University of Minnesota Archives that offered another perspective on law enforcement’s use of social activities to track criminal behaviors.

Dr. Green was a bacteriologist in the Medical School. His primary research focused on the relationship between viruses and cancer in animal populations. He directed the Minnesota wildlife disease investigation and for a brief time served as chair of bacteriology prior to his death in 1947.

In his papers he kept a FBI wanted persons mailer. The person in question was William Dainard, as know as William Mahan, in connection with the 1935 child abduction and ransom of George Weyerhaeuser, heir to the Weyerhaeuser timber company.

The mailer was part of a national attempt to locate Dainard. Dr. Green received a copy as a bacteriologist due to the fact that Dainard was likely seeking treatment for a venereal disease. In this case, the FBI used Dainard’s social activities, and subsequent social disease, against him in an effort to track him down.

See a copy of the FBI mailer below. Note the stamped “May Seek Venereal Treatment” under the mug shots.


First mention

History is often focused on the first instance, the first mention in order to identify when something happened and how it relates to what followed. The New York Times offers a column ‘First Mention‘ that uses its own archives of news articles to determine when something was first reported. This isn’t too different from the way the Oxford English Dictionary traces the etymology of a word to its modern meaning.

As more and more documents are transferred to a digital format, our understanding of the ‘first’ of anything will become more accurate.

As an example, in the spring of 1954, the beginnings of open heart surgery took a major step forward at the University of Minnesota. A team of surgeons including C. Walt Lillehei, Richard Varco, Morley Cohen, and Herbert Warden developed and implemented a new technique called cross circulation.

On April 30th the University News Service held a news conference and issued a corresponding press release heralding the new achievement. Pushed out to the national media, the story of Dr. Lillehei’s success soon became a popular print and television phenomenon.

Historically, this was a major accomplishment in the world of surgery and captured the world’s attention.

From a digital archives perspective, we are now able to re-live those early first moments as presented to the public by locating the procedure’s first mention.

In addition to the New York Times’ pay service, offers free online access to their articles dating back to 1923. A simple search easily retrieves the May 10, 1954 announcement of cross circulation. Google’s News Archive Search also offers the ability to discover multiple articles on the subject from news sources across the country.

Closer to home, the University Digital Conservancy, the digital archives for the University of Minnesota, provides online access to the original news release on cross circulation issued at 2 PM on April 30, 1954.

There are even some remnants of film surviving from the press conference that have transitioned from analog to digital format. This may not be on par with today’s Driven to Discover videos but it surely captivated the interest of viewers at the time.

Tracking down these first mentions usually provide other insights that historical researchers are unaware of. For instance, until Herbert Warden started the pump in the above video, I had no idea that cross circulation was a LOUD technology; something akin to an air compressor in the operating room.

What did this place used to be?

From time to time, I get questions about what a certain office, location, or building use to be prior to its current function. These are always fun to answer and usually provide a sense of institutional history to the person who asked the question.

img0148.jpgA recent donation by the AHC Office of Facilities & Capital Planning to the archives has made this task even easier. Pictured is a 239 page listing of each room and its use in the health sciences complex from February 1982. The document, titled “Current Assignment of Health Science Space: Detail by Building and Room,” is particularly helpful because it provides information on how the Mayo Memorial Building served as both a patient care facility as well as research/office space prior to the construction of the new hospital in 1986.

A few examples include:

In 1982 Room #602 in Children’s Rehab Center was a faculty office. Today it is my office.

In 1982 Rooms #605-607C in Mayo were Psychiatry faculty offices located near patient rooms. Today it is the Medical School Dean’s office.

In 1982 395A Mayo was a Coffee Shop. Today it is the AHC Office of Communications office.

With this handy reference tool, feel free to ask “What did this place used to be?”

Questions, questions

As part of the History Project, I assist others in using archival materials to answer questions and conduct research. People who use the archives are undergraduates, grad students, staff, faculty, administrators, scholars from other institutions, and the general public.

Email & phone inquiries are the most popular methods of contacting me but the occasional letter or drop-in happens as well.

Using the archives and asking questions are free of charge and open to anyone. Some questions are easy to answer while others require time to review materials and dig a little deeper. And, sometimes a definitive answer cannot be found (although hopefully enough information can be obtained to at least support a conclusion).

A few examples of recent reference questions and the answers are below. Perhaps you where wondering the same thing. . .

Question: Could you verify for me that Powell Hall could have been a place where families might have stayed when they had family members in the hospital?

img0145.jpgAnswer: Yes. Powell Hall served a variety of purposes from its dedication in 1933 to its demolition in 1981. Powell Hall was primarily, and is most known for being, a residence hall for nursing students. During its last two decades it also provided dormitory housing for women from across campus, housed administrative office space for the School of Public Health, and was used as a resting space for on-call hospital staff. In the 1970s, families who traveled to the Twin Cities to be close to a family member at the University Hospitals had the opportunity to stay at the “Powell Hall motel as a convenience for patients and their relatives.”

Question: I am looking for information about the establishment of a Learning Resource Center for the health sciences in the 1970s. It was one of the first in the nation to be housed within a biomedical library.

img0146.jpgAnswer: Yes, there is information related to the establishment of the Learning Resource Center (originally known as the Instructional Resource Center) for the health sciences, the precursor to the AHC Learning Commons, at the archives. In 1968 a subcommittee for long-range planning for the health sciences investigated the programmatic & spaces needs of a learning resource center. In 1970 a prototype center was established in Diehl Hall by the Medical School in conjunction with the Bio-Medical Library. A sampling of documentation related to this subcommittee originally chaired by Dr. Ramon M. Fusaro is available in the digital archives.

Question: Where were the original operating rooms in Elliot Memorial Hospital?

img0147.jpgAnswer: The exact answer to this question still eludes me but trying to answer it has been a very enjoyable process. Elliot Memorial Hospital was dedicated in September of 1911 as the first university teaching hospital. In subsequent years it was expanded to include the Todd and Christian wings and the Eustis Children’s Hospital. In 1954 this U-shaped configuration served as the east, south, and west sides of the new Mayo Memorial Building.

I have looked at original blueprints from 1911 although they mostly depict external details, reviewed floor plans from the late 1950s after the completion of the Mayo Memorial Hospital, and walked the halls. I’ve spoken with faculty and staff who have some insight but to no avail. Although I have not exhausted my sources, evidence indicates space on the 5th and 6th floors could have contained an observational gallery and sky lights that would have overseen the surgical room. Hopefully more on this to come.

Question: I was told that the archives has faculty lists for the Urology service–right? I don’t need salary or any other info, only a list of those with title of assistant professor or higher after 1966.

Answer: There are a variety of sources to try and determine faculty lists, however, one of the easiest sources to use are the course catalogs and bulletins for undergraduate, graduate, professional, and non-degree programs. Within the description of each school and program there is almost always a list of affiliated faculty by their rank. Most bulletins were published on a biannual basis and may miss a name or two but are generally considered reliable in their accuracy. The bulletins date from 1871 to the present. A print set is available at the University Archives. Most of the bulletins from 1871 through the 1940s are also available online.

Have a question you’d like to ask? Have a better answer to any of the above? Please, feel free to contact me.

Soft drinks and polio

Soft drinks rarely get positive marks for health benefits. In fact soda consumption is linked to increase risks of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, tooth decay, obesity, and most recently pancreatic cancer according to a recent University of Minnesota study.

But have soft drinks taken the blame for diseases without any clearly linked evidence? Internet rumors include carbon dioxide poisoning due to over consumption and deaths resulting from mixing soda and certain candies that create a combustible combination.

Yet, targeting soft drinks is not a new phenomenon.

In the late 1940s polio continued to elude researchers and their ability to isolate the virus and create an effective vaccine. At the University of Minnesota a team of medical scientists funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now March of Dimes) worked to better understand the disease and search for treatments and a cure. This group known as the Minnesota Poliomyelitis Research Committee included such notables as Ancel Keys (physiological hygiene), Cecil Watson (medicine), Elexious T. Bell (pathology), Ernst Gellhorn (neurophysiology), Irvine McQuarrie (pediatrics), Raymond Bieter (pharmacology), Gaylord Anderson (public health), Berry Campbell (anatomy), A.B. Baker (neurology), and Maurice Visscher (physiology) as its chair.

The committee’s focus on such a widely feared and often misunderstood disease resulted in a deep public interest in their progress. Letters to the committee offering advice, theories, and potential solutions were common.

Suggestions received included dropping DDT on the city of Minneapolis by airplane to kill the virus,looking at the public health menace of dog feces in yards and parks as a transmitter of the virus, and recognizing the unfettered spread of world capitalism as a proponent of the disease (this letter also included a card to join the Socialist Party).

Also included in the committee’s files are two letters from a St. Paul chiropractor who puts the blame squarely on the popular consumption of soft drinks. Written at the end of 1946 the letters blame the chemicals included in the drinks and the government for ignoring the issue. The author theorizes the increase of polio corresponds to warmer weather when more soft drinks are consumed and concludes, “I am sure it is the soft drinks that is causing polio.”

Read the letters below.


Tools of the trade

img0134.jpgA lot can be done in the archives with a pencil, acid-free folders and a few boxes. However, there are times when different tools are required. In this case a hammer and screwdriver.

My recent work includes sorting through records from the Vice President of Health Sciences office acquired over the past 30-some years. The material consists of well over 100 boxes and spans six administrations of the Academic Health Center.

img0135.jpgAs part of this review, an intriguing locked metal box surfaced. Without a key to be found, I had to use a different tool set, quite literally a tool set, to open it.

The box was locked for obvious reasons. A label taped to the front read: “VPHS Search 1981-82.” Presumably, its contents would include applicant information and search committee materials.

The 1981-1982 search for a new Vice President of Health Sciences was the first open search for the position. Created in 1970 with the reorganization of the health sciences by the Board of Regents, the position’s first incumbent was Dr. Lyle French, whom the Regents appointed as acting Vice President in July 1970 and then as full VP in March 1971. Dr. French served for eleven years before stepping down. The successor to the position was Dr. Neal Vanselow in September 1982.

img0136.jpgOn the Monday before Thanksgiving, I managed to pop the lock and open it in front of a small audience at the project’s advisory committee meeting. Luckily, it was not my ‘Al Capone’s vault‘ moment. Locked for nearly 27 years, the metal container and its contents were now part of the historical record.

The box contained applicant files as well as notes generated by the search committee. Much of this information is governed by University of Minnesota records management and human resource policies and must follow certain retention schedules to satisfy privacy requirements.

img0137.jpgFortunately, the box also contained material that related directly to the development of the position and documents the search process. This information provides insight into the needs of the University and the health sciences at that particular point in time. These items will be retained as part of the institutional record in the archives.