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.

Biometry, Health Computer Sciences, or Health Informatics?

Why not all three? The Institute for Health Informatics at the University of Minnesota recently deposited 45 cubic feet of material to the University Archives. This is pretty impressive for an institute that is only seven years old. In reality, the materials date back to 1968 when the relevant graduate degree was Biometry and Health Information Sciences, and was part of the School of Public Health. At the same time, the Division of Health Computer Sciences was part of the Medical School‘s Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, and was a forerunner to the academic aspect of the Institute of Health Informatics.

The materials in this collection are mainly from training grants and a simulations resources grant. The main grant supporting this program was a prestigious National Library of Medicine grant, which was held from 1974 to 2009 and was used to train future teachers in the field of health informatics as well as future researchers. The simulation grant, through the National Center for Research Resources, allowed the University of Minnesota to be unique in that there were computers available as a resource in its medical sciences college.

Samples of the kinds of grant reports that are available for early training grants are available in the University Digital Conservancy’s Health Sciences & University Hospitals Historical Collections. More grant reports and applications from the Institute for Health Informatics collection will hopefully be digitized and uploaded next fall, so keep an eye on the Digital Conservancy.

Father of Medical Oncology

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Kennedy.jpgB.J. Kennedy was a Regents’ Professor at the University of Minnesota and was considered the Father of Medical Oncology by many. Kennedy passed away in 2003, and his family deposited materials from his research and work in 2004 and 2010. Just recently, those materials have been processed and listed so as to be more accessible to the general public.

Within those materials are a huge number of images from Dr. Kennedy’s research into cancer and graphics from talks he gave. Kennedy also kept an ordered collection of the almost-1,000 articles he published, which is now stored in the University Archives. While a prolific researcher, he was also a prominent administrator at the University of Minnesota. His papers include records from the Department of Oncology and the Masonic Cancer Center.

Learn why Dr. B.J. Kennedy was considered the Father of Medical Oncology by visiting the University Archives and reading his biographical file or looking through the collection of his materials.

1950s Clinical Conference Course

The College of Veterinary Medicine collection was recently processed, primarily by finding all the small collections relating to this college and combining them into one place. One set of materials that had not previously been processed, and no one is sure where it came from, is a series of records on a course in the College of Veterinary Medicine in the 1950s called “Clinical Conference Course”. This weekly seminar was used by professors to put a collection of symptoms in front of the students and then discuss what disease might be present. The University Archives now has a collection of the handouts given to students from 1949 through 1962. This set of handouts can be used to get a glimpse into how veterinary medicine was organized and what tests were available during this era. It is interesting to use this type of material for any health science to learn how practice in the field has progressed over the years; this set of records could be beneficial to any student of the history of veterinary medicine.

Ecology of cancer

Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells within the body. Common forms of treatment include the targeted destruction of the mutated cells through radiation or chemotherapy or the removal of the cells once they have amassed into a tumor. More recently, preventative measures, including the use of vaccines, have become a common focus in the fight against certain types of cancer. The National Cancer Institute describes these cancer vaccines as representing “an emerging type of biological therapy that is still mostly experimental.”

Yet, those researching the cause & prevention of cancer know that the use of vaccines is not a new idea. Evidence of early research into the commonalities between viruses and cancer is found in the University of Minnesota Archives.

img0183.jpgDr. Robert G. Green, M.D. joined the staff of the Department of Bacteriology in 1918. In the 1920s, Dr. Green’s research focused on the evolutionary nature of viruses and how they cause disease. Dr. Green also directed the Minnesota Wildlife Disease Investigation, sponsored by the State of Minnesota, the University of Minnesota, and the United States Biological Survey. During his tenure, he created a vaccine to prevent encephalitis in foxes. Based on this work with viruses, he went on to investigate how cancer cells spread in the body. In 1946 he published an article on “Virus Aspects of Carcinoma” and in 1947 he published “The Species Character of Cancer Cells” in Science.

Green’s papers are also a fascinating study of the early work done in ecology and the crossover between researchers and the fields of medicine, zoology, and conservation. Examples include correspondence with Aldo Leopold and Charles Elton.

img0184.jpgA 1935 letter from Leopold documents the sharing ideas. Leopold writes “I thought you might be interested in the enclosed publication by Allen and Baldwin, indicating a cycle in the effectiveness of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the process of passage through successive host plants. This comes very near the Matamek hypothesis of cyclic virulence in pathogenic bacteria.”

View the finding aid for the Robert G. Green, M.D. papers available at the University of Minnesota Archives.


Digging deeper

The University Archives collects the personal and professional papers of senior administrators, long-term faculty, selected alumni, and others whose primary institutional affiliation has been with the University of Minnesota.

Generally, these collections complement departmental holdings and reflect the teaching, research, and service missions of the University of Minnesota by capturing the personal perspectives of those tasked with implementing theses missions.

Unfortunately, these collections are not always robust. They have been unceremoniously weeded by their creators during office moves or retirement, picked over by colleagues and family after a person’s passing, or stored in multiple locations hindering attempts to reconcile the documents.

These are generally the conditions archives consider normal. The personal papers of individuals that we do collect are done so with an acknowledgment that it is usually an incomplete set and likely the best means to document their work.

Lately, however, a new approach to digging deeper into the professional lives of those individuals that make up the university has become evident. As the University Archives digitizes portions of its holdings, there is now the ability to keyword search across hundreds of thousands of pages of press releases, minutes, annual reports, and alumni and university newsletters in the University Digital Conservancy. Trolling through this much information simply would not have been possible before.

img0175.jpgOne recent example that I came across was information about Ray M. Amberg, who administered the University Hospitals from the 1930s until his retirement in 1964. The Archives does have a small set of his papers, mostly consisting of personal correspondence and various accolades received for his performance. Yet, by searching the digital archives, a much richer depiction of his involvement with the university becomes clearer.

The first mention of Mr. Amberg is as a student singled out in the 1918 President’s Report as one of eight students leaving their studies to take part in the war effort.


As Director of the University Hospitals, the defining moment of his career was likely the opening of the Mayo Memorial Hospital in 1954.


Finally, in December 1968, the Regents’ minutes note that their regularly scheduled start time was delayed so that they could attend the funeral service of Mr. Amberg.


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.

A homecoming

In archival parlance, provenance refers to the original source or creator of a collection of material. Provenance is fundamental to preserving context for records and is the principle that provides the authority we give to records as being original.

After establishing provenance, archivists seek to preserve the original order of the material. This is generally considered the same sequence the original creator stored the records. It preserves the context of the materials.

Then there are times when records come to the archives without any provenance and are out of sequence. When enough clues are available, the restoration of original order is the best possible solution.

Such is the case with two folders labeled “Wilson, Dr. L. B. Mayo Foundation Rochester Minn.” One dated “1921-1925,” the other “1926-“.

img0130.jpgFound among 1970s Medical School administrative records, the look of the folders, the dates of the material, and the content they contained all support the conclusion that they were not created by the dean’s office of the 1970s and were thus out of context and without an established provenance.

These folders primarily contain correspondence between Louis B. Wilson and Clarence Jackson, then head of anatomy at the University of Minnesota. The letters pertain to the transfer, release, and burial of corpses used for dissection between the University of Minnesota and Mayo.

It can be said that due to their intimate knowledge of an institution and changes in an organization over time that archivists figuratively know where all the bodies are buried. Yet, these two folders quite literally tell the story of where they are buried. The “they” being unclaimed bodies available for anatomical study and managed by the Medical School according to a 1913 state law.

A review of existing collections in the archives proved to be fruitful. A two box set of records transferred from the Department of Anatomy to the archives in 1951 contained identical folders, similar correspondence between Dr. Jackson & other individuals regarding the management of bodies for anatomical study, and a noticeable absence in the alphabetical order of correspondence files for an entry under “Wilson.”

At some point between 1926 and 1951 someone removed these two folders from the Dept. of Anatomy, yet the folders managed to remain paired together as they moved from office to office, hand to hand over the next 60 to 80 years until finally sent to the archives. The transfer of these seemingly miscellaneous materials to the archives was the key step in restoring their provenance and establishing their original order.

8 is the loneliest number

img0129.jpg8 mm film, 8 track tapes, 8 inch floppy disks, all once promising media storage formats are for the most part gone from our daily use and even popular memory. Replaced by modern day equivalents of WAV files, MP3s, and cloud computing, our common media storage and delivery has moved from the tangible to intangible.

What is an archivist to do?

The time has come where archives and libraries are better equipped and staffed to manage the latter rather than the former. Maintaining AV rooms filled with half-working equipment for playback is a no win situation. Institutional repositories and internet based applications are better able to store, playback and preserve digitally created information than ever before.

A recent discovery of a box full of 8 inch floppies all marked as correspondence from the office of the Vice President for Health Sciences demonstrates the conundrum in the collection of historical documents. On the one hand, the content of the disks are absolutely central to the collecting focus for the History Project, yet on the other, the media is so obsolete and likely degraded to the point of being unable to retrieve any information.

The 8 inch floppy, like its successors the 5 in., 3.5in., Jaz and Zip disks, were tied to specific hardware operating systems. Yet, it often had multiple formats, disk densities, transfer rates, and spinning heads that made them even in their prime incompatible with other 8 inch disk drives. The ability to rescue data off any 8 inch diskette today would be beyond most IT skill sets and, due to the low data capacity they actually held, not worth the expense.

1980s computing taught us in the 1990s to fear the question of “how will I be able to save, read, open, edit this after the media, format, software, hardware changes?” However, in the last ten years the migration of electronic records has become easier to understand and to accomplish with only minor cautionary steps.

Changes in storage media will always challenge our preservation techniques and cause a few gaps in recorded history. This is to be expected and for the most part accepted as progress to better record keeping. I’m sure the first few recipes for baked clay tablets didn’t quite turn out as expected, yet I’ve never heard anyone mention cuneiform tablets as an unstable media.

So with this in mind I will look at my box of 8 inch floppies, and the information they might contain, and realize that this gap of documentation is an example of the jumps made from one media system to the next that is likely lost to history.

Gross anatomy

From time to time, when sorting though boxes and folders of personal papers and office records, certain things will jump out at you as being out of place or not part of the original intention of the creator. Often times this addition to a collection is an unwanted biological guest like bugs or spiders (sometimes living but mostly dead), mold or mildew (usually dormant but sometimes active), and once I even saw the skeletal remains of a mouse (definitely an unintentional addition).

However, working with collections that focus on the health sciences, stumbling across a biological specimen is usually no accident at all. I’ve found random, unlabeled paraffin wax pathology samples as well as a wax cast of the inner ear (harvested post-mortem).

Today was a new anatomical sample in the archives. Inside this miniature cigar box were nearly two dozen envelopes containing extracted adult human teeth from the 1950s.


Most had their full roots and represented all types of molars, bicuspids, and incisors.


It was as if some contemptuous tooth fairy had stashed them away.

Part of the process

img0069.jpgWhen collecting the records of an active institution, material trickles in over time, sometimes out of sequence and almost always with the promise of “there’s more where that came from.”

There are also discreet sets of material within an institution related to a particular project or office that is no longer in operation. This material is easier to bookend with a beginning and an end, but often comes to the archives in batches over a period of time. Such is the case with the records of the Board of Governors, an institutional body charged with the management of the University Hospitals from 1975-1996.

In October 2006 I discussed the acquisition of an almost complete run of the BoG minutes. I then identified an existing collection of BoG material already located at University Archives. A year later, my good friends at the Wangensteen Historical Library opened up a locked filing cabinet and discovered nearly 12 boxes worth of additional material related to the Board of Governors’ activities.

For an institutional body that ceased to exist almost 12 years ago, the BoG had the ability to generate records faster than I could collect them.

Now, with the assistance of University Archives, all sets of material related to the Board of Governors are being organized as a single collection that will be available for research and administrative use.

Read the minutes from the first Board of Governors’ meeting held on January 15, 1975: