Visiting an Exhibit on Early AIDS at the New York Historical Society

School’s back in session. With fall approaching, your author has resumed teaching and attending lectures. Today I had the chance to visit the New-York Historical Society where an exhibit, AIDS in New York: The First Five Years is winding down. The display closes in two days.

A group advocating AIDS research marches down Fifth Avenue in June, 1983. (Mario Suriani/AP) - NYHS image

A group advocating AIDS research marches down Fifth Avenue in June, 1983. (M. Suriani/AP image) NYHS 

The opening scene, by the first room’s entrance, is breathtaking in a way. There’s a huge picture of men, countless, basking in the sun on a Hudson pier. The men looked relaxed, comfortable and healthy – blissfully unaware of what lies ahead. The exhibit takes you through the late 70’s club scene, with just a few pictures of that, and then moves to confusing and odd reports of unusual infections in homosexual men, intravenous drug addicts, hemophiliacs and Haitians. The show moves on into the early 80’s, when science steps in slowly, and most politicians keep away.

What’s clear is that most doctors didn’t know what was going on. The young men weren’t sure either. There were rumors but also credible denials about a disease affecting the community. Gradually, the city’s Department of Health and CDC started tracking the problem. There were protests, and activists, and friends helping friends to die. There was no therapy back then, except to temper some of the infections and treat the once-rare cancers we were seeing with strange frequency.

I had the fortune of walking through the exhibit today among a group of suburban high school students – kids who were born after the invention of anti-retroviral therapy. Their questions – some simple and others intense, and the relatively young guide’s recounting of her experiences during the early AIDS years, made me realize how crucial is this history. It was a terrifying health problem, then.

Yes, the historical society’s exhibit is neat and tidy. I remember, well, caring for young people who died, hopelessly. The gravity of the epidemic isn’t captured. But it’s a worthwhile review, nonetheless – especially for its bits on low-end media, like typed bulletins from the early Gay Men’s Health Crisis and early posters on safe sex. Those frank messages provided the only information some people at risk received about the emerging disease. The display includes a few passages and images having to do with patients helping patients. That was the best part.

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Notes on the Social History of American Medicine, Self Reliance and Health Care, Today

Over my vacation I read a bit on the history of health care in the United States. The Social Transformation of American Medicine, by Paul Starr, was first published in 1982. The author, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton, gives a fascinating, relevant account in two chunks. In the first section, he details the rise of professional authority among physicians in the U.S. In the second part, he focuses on the relationship of doctors to corporations and government.

I couldn’t put this book down. Seriously, it’s a page-turner, at least in the first half, for anyone who cares about medical education, doctors’ work, and how people find and receive health care. In an early chapter, on medicine in colonial and early 19th Century America, Starr recounts the proliferation of medical schools and doctors, or so-called doctors, in the years after 1812. One problem of that era, besides a general lack of scientific knowledge about disease, was that it didn’t take much to get a medical degree. State licensing laws didn’t exist for the most part, and where they did come in place, such as in New York City, they were later rescinded. Then as now, many practicing folks didn’t want regulations.

Doctors were scarce and not always trustworthy. People, especially in rural areas, chose or had to be self-reliant. Many referred to lay sources for information. Starr writes of the “domestic” tradition of medical care:

…Women were expected to deal with illness in the home and to keep a stock of remedies on hand; in the fall, they put away medicinal herbs as they stored preserves. Care of the sick was part of the domestic economy for which the wife assumed responsibility. She would call on networks of kin and community for advice and illness when illness struck…

As he describes it, one book – William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine, was reprinted at least 30 times. It included a section on causes of disease and preventive measures, and a section on symptoms and treatments. By the mid 19th Century a book by John C. Gunn, also called Domestic Medicine, or Poor Man’s Friend…offered health advice in plain language.

Starr considers these and other references in the context of Protestantism, democracy and early American culture:

…while the domestic medical guides were challenging professional authority and asserting that families could care for themselves, they were also helping to lay the cultural foundations of modern medical practice – a predominantly secular view of sickness…the authority of medicine now reached the far larger number who could consult a physician’s book.

Reading this now, I can’t help but think of the Internet and other popular and accessible resources that challenge or compete with doctors’ authority. Other elements of Starr’s history pertain to current debates on medical education, credentialing and distribution of providers.

Just days ago, for example, the New York Times ran an editorial on a trend of getting Health Care Where You Work. The paper reported on Bellin Health, an allegedly non-profit entity, that designs on-site clinics for medium-sized companies. “It has managed to rein in costs while improving the availability and quality of care — in large part by making it easier for patients to see nurses and primary care doctors,” according to the Times opinion. The clinics are “staffed part-time by nurses, nurse practitioners or physician assistants, who handle minor injuries and illnesses, promote healthy living and conduct preventive screenings.”

The editorial touts Dartmouth Atlas data and other high marks for the care Bellin provides at low costs to possibly happy workers and their satisfied employers. Still, it’s not clear to me that an on-site clinic would be a great or even a good place to seek care if you had a subtle blood disorder or something like the newly-reported Heartland virus.

On reading the editorial on delivering health care to the workplace, I was reminded of Starr’s tale of the development of clinics at railroad and mining companies in the first half of the 20th Century. This happened mainly is rural areas where few doctors lived, at industry sites where injuries were frequent. The workers, by Starr’s account, were generally suspicious of the hired physicians and considered them inferior to private doctors whom they might choose if they became ill. They resented paying mandatory fees to support those on-site doctors’ salaries. Doctors’ groups, like the AMA, generally opposed and even ostracized those “company doctors” for selling out, or themselves, at a lower price.

The second half of the Social Transformation, on failed attempts at reform before 1982, is somewhat but not entirely outdated in light of Obamacare and 40 years intervening. But many of the issues, such as consideration of the “market” for doctors and the number of physicians we need, relate to the papers of this week including an Economix column by another Princeton professor, Uwe Reinhardt, who puts forth a view that, well, I don’t share. As I understand his position, Reinhardt suggests that there may be no real shortage of doctors, because physicians can always scrunch their workloads to fit the time allotted. But that’s a separate matter…

In sum, on the Social Transformation, today: Worthwhile! Curious! Pertinent! Starr’s book is chock full of history “lessons” that might inform medical practice in 2012. And I haven’t even mentioned my favorite segments – on prohibiting doctors’ advertisements (think websites, now), the average workload of physicians before 1900 (think 5 or so patients per day), and the impact of urbanization on medical care and doctors’ lives and specialization.

Lots to think about, and read.

All for now,



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The Emperor of All Maladies: A Narrative of Cancer History and Ideas

This week I finished reading the Emperor of All Maladies, the 2010 “biography” of cancer by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee. The author, a medical oncologist and researcher now at Columbia University, provides a detailed account of malignancies – and how physicians and scientists have understood and approached a myriad of tumors – through history.

The encyclopedic, Pulitzer Prize-winning book is rich with details. In the first half, Mukherjee focuses on clinical aspects of malignancy. He works both ancient and modern stories into the narrative; the reader learns of Atossa, the Persian queen of the 6th Century BCE who covered her breast disease, and Thomas Hodgkin, who in the 19th Century dissected cadavers and noted a “peculiar” pattern of glandular swelling in some young men, and Einar Gustafson, aka Jimmy, who was among the first children cured of leukemia in the 1950s.

The second half is a tour-de force on cancer biology; the author winds distinct threads of cancer science. He moves from century-old observations of cells with abnormal chromatin, through viral theories and hard-to-prove carcinogens, to the brave new world of oncogenes, targeted therapies, and current cancer genomics. He narrates the rift between clinical oncologists who, primarily, treat patients empirically and think less about science, and cancer researchers, who generally attend separate conferences and concern themselves with mechanisms of tumor growth and theoretical ways of blocking them. He relates a gradual, albeit slow, coming together of those two fields – of clinical and molecular oncology.

Mukherjee leaves the reader with a sense of cancer as a vast, infinitely diverse group of diseases that can mutate and adapt while a person receives treatment. The oncologist’s new goal, he suggests, is not so much to eradicate the disease as to learn more about its nature and course, to monitor each patient’s tumor and adjust medications as the cancer – or burden, as the term implies – shifts and mutates within the person who carries it along, within, for years and even decades.

It takes a long time to understand the workings of cancer cells; this book offers insights for oncologists and patients alike.


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Magic Johnson is Alive 20 Years after Announcing He Had HIV

Yesterday’s Washington Post Sports has a clip from CNN, 20 years ago, when basketball star Magic Johnson announced on TV that he had HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The date was Nov 7, 1991.

“Where were you when Magic made his announcement? What were your thoughts on Johnson and HIV/AIDS that day and how have they changed?” asks Matt Brooks in his column.

I can’t quite recall where I was. Probably I was at the hospital working, possibly even taking care of a patient with HIV. But I do remember thinking how much courage it must have taken for him to come out with it.

He understood, likely, that he would die soon, and his doctors probably thought the same. There were only two antiviral drugs approved for HIV back then. There was so much stigma, and fear.

Today you can see and listen to him in an interview on ESPN.

It’s great to see Magic Johnson back in the news, even if it’s (just) in a sports sections, and to be reminded that he’s alive, doing OK. The condition we thought was a death sentence has become a chronic illness, with so many drugs available for treatment it’s hard to keep track.

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First Look at the Burns Collection of Early Medical Photographs

CBS News has posted a gripping set of images, mostly of cancer patients, dating to the 1880s. The photos from the Burns Archive are graphic, as much as they’re telling, instructive and rare.


This photograph, taken in New York City in 1886, is one of the earliest ever taken of breast surgery. Surgeons had begun to adopt infection-control measures in the operating room, but at this point they hadn’t yet adopted the use of surgical masks and hats and their surgical gowns were simply put on over their street clothes. The anesthesiologist whose hands are visible holding the patient’s arm on the left side of the frame is wearing street clothes. Anesthesiologists were the last doctors to don surgical clothing in the operating room.

Credit: Dr. Stanley B. Burns, via CBS News

According to its website, the Burns Archive houses the nation’s largest and most comprehensive collection of early medical photography (1840-1920). It turns out the collection is based on East 38th Street. It’s nearby, and I should explore it for real.

Meanwhile, I recommend that my non-squeamish readers take a look at the CBS-published images. If nothing else, these digitized relics display how far improved are surgical methods – and cancer treatments – since the late 19th Century.

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Who Was Nurse Mary Jane Seacole?

(and, on bias in education)

On the bus last week I was reading the latest New Yorker and came upon a short, front-end piece by Ian Frazier on Mary Jane Seacole, a Jamaican nurse who tended wounded soldiers in the Crimean War. As best as I can recall, I’d never heard before of Florence Nightingale’s colleague.

Wiki Commons image

From Two Nurses:

Florence Nightingale strongly disapproved of Mary Jane Seacole, but that did not stop either of them. The former invented the profession of nursing and became famous for her work on the battlefields of the Crimean War. The latter grew up in Jamaica, knew native remedies learned from her Jamaican mother…supported herself by selling jams, pickles, and spices after her husband’s death, travelled widely, and offered to nurse soldiers in the Crimean War with Nightingale. Turned down, Mary Seacole went to the Crimea anyway. She paid her own expenses, tended the wounded on both sides, constructed a hotel-clinic from scrap, and handed out wine and hot tea to the soldiers. They loved her…

Moving beyond the certainly fact-checked details on the legend of Mary Seacole, I learned that there is a Society for the Advancement of the Caribbean Diaspora, based in Brooklyn, a borough in the city where I live. And confirmed that March was Woman’s History Month.

Seacole’s autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, was an 1857 best-seller, Frazier wrote. According to the University of Pennsylvania’s Digital Library, James Blackwood, a 19th Century London publisher based at Paternoster Row, put forth her story.

So much to learn here. I wonder if anyone’s written a Seacole biography other than her own?


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A Glimpse into the Cochrane Library

I’m taking notes on the Cochrane Library. The site – a collection of databases and reviews – drew my attention yesterday when an embargo was breached for an article to be published there having to do with zinc’s putative power to squelch the common cold.

From the website, published John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.: the Library is put forth by the Cochrane Collaboration, an international group established in 1993. This on-line set includes the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, which so far has published over 4000 papers. The stated aim is to help people make well-informed decisions about human health.

Professor Archibald Leman Cochrane, a health care researcher and pioneering epidemiologist, was born in Scotland in 1909. He attended Cambridge and studied medicine in London. His work was interrupted, extensively. According to the Cochrane site, he served in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and was a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps during WWII. At one point he was taken as a POW, in Crete. Later on, after a stint studying tuberculosis in Philadelphia, among other endeavors, he became a full Professor at the Welsh National School of Medicine in Cardiff, Wales.

In some countries and Canadian provinces, the Cochrane Library is freely and fully available to anyone with Internet access, based on funding for the collaboration. Here in the U.S., you might view the complete database through a public or university library subscription.

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The King’s Speech is Not Just About Stuttering

Over the weekend I went to see the King’s Speech. So far the film, featuring Colin Firth as a soon-to-be-King-of-England with a speech impediment, and Geoffrey Rush as his ill-credentialed but trusted speech therapist, has earned top critics’ awards and 12 Oscar nominations. This is a movie that’s hard not to like for one reason or another, at least most of the way through. It uplifts; it draws on history; it depends on solid acting.

What I liked best, though, is the work’s rare depiction of a complex relationship between two imperfect, brave and dedicated men. At some level, this is a movie about guys who communicate without fixating on cars, football (either kind) or women’s physical features. Great! and, dear Hollywood moguls, can we have some more like this, please?

The film’s medical aspects are four, at least: the stuttering, the attitude of physicians toward smoking, a closeted sibling who had epilepsy and died at an early age – just mentioned in passing, and, finally, the king’s trusted practitioner’s lack of credentials.

King George VI (Wikimedia Commons)

At the start, Prince Albert (young King George VI) has a severe speech impediment. It’s said that he stutters, and on film Firth does so in an embarrassingly, seemingly extreme and compromising degree. He’s the second of George V‘s sons, and might or might not succeed to the throne depending on events in history, his older brother’s behavior, and his capacity to serve the Empire at the brink of war. Being effective as King of England in 1936, and especially at the start of war in 1939, entails speaking confidently.

Prince Albert’s been through the mill with doctors who’ve tried to help him talk. Some recommend he smoke cigarettes; these, they advise, would help him to relax and, they say, is good for the nerves. One asks him to speak with a mouthful of marbles, on which this doctor watching the film worried he might choke. Eventually Albert’s wife, Elizabeth (Queen Mother to be), finds a speech therapist in London, Lionel Logue, who uses unorthodox approaches with, by rumor, exceptional results. Eventually Prince Albert – or “Bertie” as the therapist insists on calling him – trusts and accepts help from this peculiar Australian who, it turns out, developed his methods of assisting stutterers through his work with shell-shocked soldiers in WWI.

According to MedlinePlus, stuttering affects as many as 1 in 20 children, with typical onset before the age of 5. The problem can persist for weeks or years, of manifold causes. Some families are disproportionately affected, but there’s no known genetic cause. Stuttering can arise upon emotional trauma. It’s more common in boys than in girls.

As for doctors recommending cigarettes, the concept is familiar from some old literature regarding schizophrenia. In a recent post, I included a curious TV ad featuring doctors smoking Camels. I don’t have a good sense of just how comfortable most physicians were with smoking prior to 1950, and would like to know more. Did they have their suspicions?

Finally, on the relationship between the king-to-be and Mr. Logue, it’s fascinating: Prince Albert prefers to call his therapist “doctor,” but Logue is adamant that they refer each to the other on a first-name basis. Well into the film, we learn that Logue hasn’t ever attended speech therapy school, or medical school, or whatever it is that someone who treats another person in London circa 1930 should have completed before providing quasi-medical, essentially psychological care as he did to his royal highness. Nonetheless, the king trusts Logue more than any suitably-credentialed therapist recruited by his staff. This topic – of the therapeutic relationship, trust and expectations – warrants separate attention.

Meanwhile, I hope you have the chance to see this movie, if you haven’t already. The Oscars are scheduled for February 27, just two weeks away.

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Twitter, The Notificator, and Old Social Media News

A series of clicks this morning brought me to an interesting web finding in a Wiki-like Dead Media Archive that links to NYU’s Steinhart School of Media, Culture, and Communication.

Dead Media Archive, NYU Steinhardt School of Media, Culture and Communication

And there rests the Notificator, said (by me) to be Twitter’s great-great-great grandfather, with details:

On September 9, 1932, the London Times printed an article following up on a “correspondence in The Times proposing that British railway stations might, like those in Japan, provide facilities for messages from one person to another to be displayed.” An electrical engineer had written to the paper, agreeing, and noted a device that he had heard of; an “automatic machine…to be installed at stations and other suitable sites, and on the insertion of two pennies facilities were given for writing a message that remained in view for two hours after writing.”

The archive cites the August 1935 issue of Modern Mechanix & Inventions Magazine: “To aid persons who wish to make or cancel appointments or inform friends of the whereabouts… the new machine is installed in streets, stores, railroad stations or other public places where individuals may leave messages for friends… The machine is similar in appearance to a candy-vending device.”

In case you’re interested, my starter source was today’s post on Get Better Health by Dr. Westby Fisher on the Pros and Cons of Social Media for doctors. There, a link in a list “you may also like these posts” drew my eye: Twitter First Conceived By British Hospital In 1935. That July, 2009 post by Berci of ScienceRoll, included an image of an unidentified old-appearing newspaper with an intriguing photo of a man with a hat pointing to a strange device with the word “Notificator” at its top.

A Google search of the headline, “Robot Messenger Displays Person-to-Person Notes in Public” led me to a 1935 Modern Mechanix issue (with the fabulous logo, “YESTERDAY’s Tomorrow TODAY”), some Russian blogs and, finally, the Dead Media Archive, based in principle if not in fact, somewhere near my home in Manhattan, 3 miles or so north of NYU.

This Web find is a good example of how social media and on-line reading can accelerate learning and finding new (and in this case old) ideas. And what goes around comes around –

The Dead Media Archive brims with interesting stuff, worth a virtual visit!

I may go check it out in person, sometime later, for real, if that’s possible –

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A Play About the Life and Work of Dr. Rosalind Franklin

Last weekend I snagged a last-minute ticket to see Photograph 51, a new play about the work and life of Rosalind Franklin. Her data, possibly stolen, enabled Francis Crick and James Watson to decipher and model the double-helix structure of DNA.

The intimate production, enacted by the small Ensemble Studio Theatre on the second floor of a nondescript building on West 52nd Street, affords a fresh look, albeit partly fictionalized, into important moments in the history of science. Most of the scenes take place in a research lab in post-War London, at King’s College, where Franklin took on a faculty appointment.

Franklin’s story starts like this: She was born in 1920 to a Jewish family in London. She excelled in math and science. She studied physical chemistry at Cambridge, where she received her undergraduate degree in 1941. After performing research in photochemistry in the following year on scholarship, she joined the British Coal Utilisation Research Association (BCURA) and carried out basic investigations on the micro-structure of coal and carbon compounds, and so earned a Ph.D. from Cambridge University. She was a polyglot, and next found herself in Paris at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimique de l’Etat, where she picked up some fine skills in x-ray crystallography.

You get the picture: she was smart, well-educated and totally immersed in physical chemistry before, during and after WWII. Single-minded and focused, you might say –

Franklin in Photograph 51 wears a simple brown dress with large black buttons straight down the middle of her lithe frame. Her lipstick and haircut seem right, but her three inch heels, even after a few years of experiencing the joie de vivre in Paris, or just being holed up in a research institute there, seem a tad too high for such a pragmatic soul. The lab set is perfect with its double-distilling glassware, wooden pegs on racks, tall metal stools with small, flat circular seats, light microscopes, heavy metal desks with file drawers and a contentious cast of characters.

As this narrative goes, Franklin spurns socializing with most of her colleagues. They find her difficult. She spends nearly all of her time and late hours using x-rays to generate crystallographic images of DNA and making detailed notes and related calculations. Eventually a lab assistant gives her key data, Photograph 51, to her colleague, Maurice Wilkins, who is inexpert in crystallography and cannot independently interpret the structure. While Franklin continues working at a measured pace, refusing to rush into publishing a model until she’s sure of her findings and the implications, Wilkins shares the image with Watson and Crick. They move quickly, publish first in Nature and, later, win the Nobel Prize for the discovery. Meanwhile Franklin leaves Wilkins’ lab and starts a new project on the structure of tobacco mosaic virus. She dies at the age of 37 of ovarian cancer, likely caused or effectuated by the radiation to which she exposed herself at work.

It’s a sad story, but instructive, engaging and very well-done, so much that it’s haunted me for days. Hard to know what’s real –

According to a program note from Anna Ziegler, the playwright: “this play is a work of fiction, though it is based on the story of the race to the double helix in England in the years between 1951 and 1953.” Ziegler refers to several books from which she drew material: The Dark Lady of DNA (by Brenda Maddox), The Double Helix (by James Watson) and The Third Man of the Double Helix (by Maurice Wilkins).

My favorite part is Franklin’s statement at the beginning: “We made the visible, visible.”

For a (depressing) counterpoint to this play’s version of events, you can take a look at Nobel Laureate James Watson’s 2007 TED lecture on YouTube. “She was a crystallographer,” he says of Franklin, and other things, before delving into his late-life happiness and current ventures in cancer genetics and autism studies.

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