Object lessons

The Wangensteen Historical Library uses old texts and artifacts to teach new generations about medicine
By Carmen Peota

Imagine you’re a medical student on the first day of anatomy class, a course you’ve awaited eagerly — or perhaps dreaded. You know only one thing about it — you’ll be dissecting a cadaver. 

But first, it turns out, you will look at centuries-old anatomy textbooks from the U’s Wangensteen Historical Library. Following a brief lecture on the history of anatomy, you will have the chance to turn the pages of several anatomy books, including a 500-year-old coffee-table-sized volume with drawings of the human form that look like fine art.  

Why provide students this brush with history? “It’s all part of acclimatizing students into the world of anatomy,” says Anthony Weinhaus, Ph.D., director of the Medical School’s program in human anatomy. “I want to make the transition as easy as possible.” He also wants students to know they are joining a long line of serious scientists who have done what they are about to do. “Dissection is not normal, but medical students have been doing it for 300 years.” 

For first-year medical student Kersten Schwanz, who has a background in art, looking at the historical anatomy books was inspiring. As someone who has drawn the human form herself, she noted the level of detail in the drawings. “I really appreciated how they saw the art of the human body,” she says of the early anatomists. “Dissection … makes you realize every person is unique. You need to be expecting that if you’re a physician.” 

Weinhaus, her anatomy professor, is one of a number of faculty members who use the Wangensteen’s collection of rare books and artifacts to teach students not just about history but to help them understand large ideas about science and medicine today. The library contains more than 80,000 rare books, journals, and manuscripts dating from 1430 to 1930 as well as old medical devices and other artifacts.

Students can learn about anatomy  as their colleagues did centuries ago, using a reproduction of an anatomy flip book by Andreas Vesalius.

Students can learn about anatomy as their colleagues did centuries ago, using a reproduction of an anatomy flip book by Andreas Vesalius. (Photo: Scott Streble)

Instilling professionalism

Peter Kernahan, M.D., Ph.D., retired surgeon and medical historian, is another who finds the library a helpful teaching aid. Kernahan works with the student-run surgical interest groups on campus, which bring undergraduates and medical students to the Wangensteen to introduce them to surgery. At these events, the students try their hand at the very modern skills of suturing and ultrasound, and learn about surgery in the days before antisepsis and anesthesia. 

The library’s curator, Lois Hendrickson, selects artifacts and books that exemplify themes or turning points in the history of surgery; she and Kernahan describe how they were used. The point is to spark the students’ curiosity about and deepen their understanding of the specialty. “I think you can only understand why surgery is as it is by understanding how it got to that point,” Kernahan explains.

Kernahan also tries to show students what a surgery career will demand of them. He reminds them to be humble, as the techniques of one generation seem primitive to the next. “We want to lay the seeds for a sense of professionalism and an understanding of the commitment required for a surgical career,” he says, referring to the years of required training. “It’s a heavy responsibility to operate on someone.” The artifacts, he says, make these lessons more real. 

Ether inhalers provide a reminder of how the advent of anesthesia changed  medical practice.

Ether inhalers provide a reminder of how the advent of anesthesia changed medical practice. (Photo: Scott Streble)

Joining the community of scholars

Hendrickson, who became the library’s curator two years ago, has a knack for connecting the very old things in her charge to the world of students.

To her, a collection of 100-year-old letters and notes about Caesarean section can be a springboard for a conversation about evidence-based medicine, for example; or a tray of glass eyeballs once owned by a company physician can lead to a lesson on occupational medicine or ethics. Above all, Hendrickson wants students to see that a community of scholars has been communicating for centuries, and they can now join that community and expand on others’ achievements.

“They’re part of a continuum,” she says, “Their work will be something others build on.”


Published on March 28, 2017

Photo above: A Civil War–era amputation kit provides fodder for historian Peter Kernahan, M.D., Ph.D., to demonstrate how to use the tools and discuss the impact of then-new inventions like the tourniquet. (Photo: Scott Streble)