The past is only part of the story at Mass General’s new Paul S. Russell, MD, Museum of Medical History and Innovation
The past is only part of the story at Mass General's new Paul S. Russell, MD Museum of Medical History and Innovation.
The new Paul S. Russell, MD, Museum of Medical History and Innovation is scheduled to open later this year but there is no end in sight to efforts to track down artifacts that can help tell the Massachusetts General Hospital story.
Consider the search for Annabella McCrae or, more precisely, a large oil painting of the longtime MGH nurse, educator and administrator, who died in 1948. Records indicate the portrait hung in a conference room in the Wang Ambulatory Care Center as late as 1999. Sometime after that, it vanished. Not that police were called. On a sprawling campus like Mass General’s, things get moved around all the time.
The painting’s disappearance might have gone unnoticed except for Patty Austen, wife of esteemed MGH surgeon W. Gerald Austen, MD, and current leader of a volunteer effort to rescue reminders of Mass General’s past from oblivion.
While pursuing her own nursing degree from Simmons College years ago, Mrs. Austen did her medical and surgical training at Mass General. When she came across a photograph of the missing painting, Mrs. Austen was riveted by the image of the nurse from the earlier era in her crisp white uniform. With some reading, she learned that Miss McCrae devoted her career to Mass General, wrote one of the first nursing textbooks and commanded the classroom with a presence hundreds of grateful nursing students never forgot. “I would love to have had her as an instructor,” Mrs. Austen says, recalling her own student days. “She has a wonderful history all by herself.”
Such moments of personal connection are the goal of the museum’s planners. The new facility will contain plenty of reminders of Mass General’s 200-year history but the aim is not to simply display them in glass boxes or hang them on hooks. Instead, explains Peter Johnson, museum director, exhibits will try to convey a sense of the altruistic ideals that generations of Mass General caregivers, educators and researchers have nurtured and eventually passed on. “The museum is not really just about the past,” Mr. Johnson says. “The point is more about the trajectory from then to now and what happens next.”
The 8,000-square-foot museum will try to relay that message while effectively serving as Mass General’s front door. Set on the corner of North Grove and Cambridge streets, the sleek two-story structure will be the first thing most patients and visitors see when they arrive at the hospital. Casual passersby will be able to view its exhibits through first-floor walls made of glass, an architectural feature designed to underscore Mass General’s strong ties to the community.
Paul S. Russell, MD, the pioneering transplant surgeon for whom the museum is named, hopes the museum’s placement and appearance will also provide a symbolic respite from the modern day debates over healthcare policy and the sense of personal foreboding that many patients feel as they approach a hospital. “Medicine is one of humanity’s greatest achievements, something that needs to be and should be admired by everyone,” says Dr. Russell, chairman of the Mass General history committee that has shepherded the museum project to fruition. “To have a place at our entrance that is welcoming and explanatory about what it is we are seems to me to be an appropriate thing to do.”
But not, it turns out, an easy one. Although the idea of a Mass General museum percolated for decades, supporters always faced seemingly insurmountable hurdles. Cost was a huge issue and space was always at a premium as Mass General grew. The historic Bulfinch Building was suggested as a site for a time, but administrative offices soon filled the void.
Meanwhile, through the decades, the Mass General professionals who dedicated their daily lives to providing ever improving care didn’t always place a high priority on preserving the medical legacy they were creating in the process. Some MGH artifacts once stored in Moseley Memorial Building have been missing since its demolition in 1979. Covered with dust and grit, others were stored for years in a cavernous warehouse.
Jeff Mifflin found the situation with written records slightly better when he became Mass General’s archivist in 1998. But even they were widely dispersed. A locksmith tipped him off to a trove tucked under the eaves of the Bulfinch Building. In the basement of the Resident Physician’s House (RPH), he found another batch that had apparently been through a flood. “I could tell it from the waterline on the file cabinets,” Mr. Mifflin recalls.
The approach of Mass General’s 200th anniversary revived discussion about doing something to bring the scattered elements of the hospital’s history into sharper focus, something to leave behind when the bicentennial celebrations were over. After becoming Mass General’s president in 2003, Peter Slavin, MD, took a keen interest in the idea of a museum but he wanted a clearly defined business plan that included cost estimates and design proposals.
Enter Robert Seger, then administrative director of Mass General’s Urology Department. Along with an MBA, his credentials included an undergraduate degree in history from the University of Connecticut. But after adding the museum project to his responsibilities, Mr. Seger quickly determined that he had much to learn. He enrolled in a museum management course at Tufts University. There, he studied topics such as “integrated pest management” and “accessioning,” the refined term for adding an artifact to a collection. “I wanted people who talked to us to know we were serious,” says Mr. Seger, now executive director, Emergency Services & Emergency Preparedness at Mass General.
That still left a maze of variables to navigate. Nationwide, there were only a handful of other hospital-run medical museums to look at for ideas. To avoid diverting hospital funds away from patient care and research, Mass General leaders decided philanthropic donations would be the sole source of funding for any museum. Then, the question became what to build, if anything. Indeed, the initial options considered — and ultimately discarded — included dedicating the lobby of some Mass General building to history or perhaps displaying a few items in a hallway.
Eventually, Mr. Seger and the other project backers came to focus on the Resident Physician’s House, built in 1891, which sits beside the street leading to Mass General’s main entrance. On its own, the red brick structure lacked adequate floor space and restroom capacity for a modern museum. It also was not wheelchair accessible.
That won’t be a problem with the new museum which, among other features, will include an elevator and ample floor space for lectures, receptions and exhibits. In the plans eventually agreed upon after much discussion, the RPH will provide administrative and archival space for the new museum, which is rising up next to it. A small terrace will connect the two buildings, and the RPH will be visible from Cambridge Street through the glass walls of the museum’s first floor. “You are going to see an old building through a new building and, metaphorically, that’s Mass General,” says Mr. Seger. “We have our history but we don’t stop with that. We continue to move forward.”
The museum project has been championed by Ann Prestipino, now MGH’s senior vice president for Surgical and Anesthesia Services and Clinical Business Development. Peggy Slasman, Mass General’s vice president, Public Affairs, and John Herman, MD, associate chief of Psychiatry and vice chair of the History Program, are overseeing implementation of the museum plan while Michelle Marcella, manager, Public Affairs, has been deeply involved in museum planning.
Although Mass General must seek additional philanthropic gifts to fully fund the museum project, ground was broken in November. As word of the construction has spread, others with significant ties to MGH have come forward with artifacts, records and other mementos that they hope will provide a bit of insight into the spirit that continues to sustain Mass General as it enters its third century.
One blustery day this winter, New Orleans surgeon William Richardson, MD, delivered a human skeleton that has been a fixture among the physicians in his family for several generations. Dr. Richardson is the son of George S. Richardson, MD, a retired gynecological surgeon at Mass General. Dr. George Richardson’s late brothers were Edward Peirson Richardson Jr., MD, a neuropathologist at Mass General, and Elliot L. Richardson who, as U.S. Attorney General during the Watergate era, refused to carry out President Richard Nixon’s order to fire a special prosecutor. One of Dr. William Richardson’s great grandfathers was the hospital’s chief of surgery and another was the chief of medicine. The skeleton was brought into the family by a great uncle, also a physician. Dr. Richardson, who has had the skeleton since the 1980s, maintains that it inspired him to study harder in medical school.
Before leaving the anatomical specimen behind with museum officials after a brief ceremony at the Bulfinch Building, the surgeon inquired about visiting procedures. “It is a piece of my personal history,” Dr. Richardson explained. “I guess I want to make sure I will be able to see it.”
For his part, Stephen Dretler, MD, emeritus director of the MGH Kidney Stone Center, has been asking colleagues to contribute anecdotes, sayings and other bits of wisdom that they have heard at Mass General through the years. Though puzzling when he first heard it, his personal favorite comes from Grant Rodney, MD, an experienced surgeon at Mass General when Dr. Dretler, now 73, joined the staff as a young man.
“Carry the ball for 15 yards and pass it on,” Dr. Dretler remembers his mentor saying. The years have clarified the oft-repeated quip’s meaning for the surgeon. “The culture of the hospital allows us to understand that we can’t do everything,” he says. “You do your part, do it well and pass it on to the next generation.”
Other pieces of the MGH story have been harder to find and explain for volunteers from the Art and Artifacts Cataloging Project of the MGH Ladies Visiting Committee (LVC). Patty Austen chairs both the project and the LVC’s Archives and History Committee. More than a decade ago, project volunteers began searching campus buildings for paintings, sculptures and other art that had been commissioned by or given to Mass General through the years. From identifying, photographing and cataloging them, the project eventually expanded its focus.
These days, the volunteers meet regularly in a clean archival storage room in Somerville. With cameras, computers and more than a bit of sleuthing, they have spent years locating and trying to compile little histories about the thousands of objects from Mass General’s past, many of which are now neatly marked and arranged on rows of tall metal shelves.
In an elegant, flowing hand, the first philanthropic gifts to Mass General appear carefully recorded in one mammoth ledger that has yellowed with age. Made of sturdy brown leather, a small Civil War apothecary kit contains tiny corked vials of medicinal powders. Vintage nurses’ uniforms, carefully folded, are still stiff with starch. The shelves also hold American flags that flew over the sprawling field hospital that Mass General staffed in France during World War I.
The room where the volunteers work also houses an array of historic paintings, many of them depicting administrators, medical innovators and department chiefs who have had an impact on Mass General through the years. But to the frustration of Patty Austen, who chairs the volunteer project, the original oil painting of nurse Annabella McCrae is still not among them.
Born in a small town in Quebec, Miss McCrae graduated from the Mass General Training School for Nurses in 1895. She became an MGH nursing instructor seven years later and continued teaching until her retirement in 1934.
Although she did not receive much outside attention or acclaim, Miss McCrae quietly left her mark. Translated into Turkish and Chinese, her 1923 book, “Procedures in Nursing,” was a standard in nursing education for years. By all accounts, she was a demanding instructor who didn’t suffer fools or cut corners in teaching students — nearly 2,000 over the course of Ms. McCrae’s career — the medical and emotional demands of their chosen profession.
Nursing students did not forget her commanding presence.
“Formidable in white starched uniform with bishop’s collar, her glasses attached by a fine black cord around her neck, Annabella McCrae entered a room under full sail, the MGH cap set squarely, top and center, on her carefully confined hair,” author Sylvia Perkins wrote in a 1975 history of the MGH School of Nursing’s first century.
After Miss McCrae’s death in 1948, the New England Journal of Medicine wrote that, while she had not been a nursing pioneer in the same sense as Florence Nightingale or Clara Barton, “ she probably did more than any other single person to elevate and maintain the standards of nursing care.” Meanwhile, former students raised money to donate to the Annabella McCrae Loan Fund, which still provides financial assistance to students pursuing degrees in nursing and other health-related fields.
For Patty Austen, learning the story of Miss McCrae has been an inspiration. It has also deepened her determination to make finding the oil portrait part of the contribution she and her volunteers leave to Mass General. “We have been looking and looking,” Mrs. Austen says. “I continue to hope that it will someday reappear.” Learn more about Massachusetts General Hospital’s first 200 years at www.massgeneral.org/bicentennial.