I was honored when University of Maryland asked me to write the 4,000-plus word centerpiece historical feature for the school’s bicentennial. My affection for the university goes way back.
My first job after getting my degree in emergency health services from the Baltimore County campus was serving as the public information officer for the School of Medicine downtown. I’d been around hospitals and medical centers for a decade by then, but always as a student or low-level employee in a lab or inpatient unit.
As PIO I had the chance to hang out with doctors and scientists, wander cluttered corridors in search of news and information, peer over shoulders and ask dumb questions. I even attended a humor workshop led by Patch Adams. Everything on campus was at my disposal – research labs, operating rooms, medical library. It’s like being a kid in a candy shop.
Founded in 1807, Maryland is the nation’s 4th oldest medical school. Among many distinctions, it was the first to require the study of anatomy by dissecting human cadavers. Human dissection was controversial at the time, considered a desecration of the dead. Locals didn’t like it.
An early building where anatomy lectures were held was attacked by an angry mob and burned to the ground. When Davidge Hall was built for the new medical school in 1812, it featured a heavy wooden front door, and a hidden passageway and staircase for students and faculty to make a quick exit out the back just in case.
In 1814, medical students watched the British bombardment of Fort McHenry from the porch of Davidge Hall. America’s oldest medical school building still in use, Davidge Hall has two circular theaters and a secret second-floor hallway where Hermie resides.
Hermie is a cadaver of undetermined age, partially dissected to show muscle and internal structures, his flesh now the color and consistency of beef jerky. He lies recumbent on a gurney, covered with a sheet. Next to the gurney is a wooden barrel, and on the wall is a document that illuminates early medical training.
Conveniently located adjacent to two cemeteries, Maryland was an important source of cadavers for other medical schools. The document, with text dating from the early 1800s, attests to the skill of Frank the Spade, who lived in the cramped space beneath the lecture hall seats and acquired fresh bodies for anatomical study. The barrel was of the type used to ship bodies. It’s a whiskey barrel. Some of the whiskey had to be removed to make room for the body, which Frank then sold to medical students.
How can you not love a place like that?
UM continues to be a client now and then. I did some patient information materials for the ob/gyn department, and for several years wrote the newsletter for the department of medicine. The bicentennial issue of the medical center’s magazine also has my feature on minimally invasive heart surgery – operating on the beating heart without use of a heart-lung machine. But by far the most satisfying was the opportunity to indulge my appetite for medicine and history. The bicentennial piece is here, and the accompanying timeline is here.