By Tara Carron, Archivist and Special Collections Librarian.
The John P. McGovern Collection of Texas Historical Medical Documents have been fully processed and digitized, and a finding aid is available here: https://archives.library.tmc.edu/ms-021. This collection, donated by Dr. John P. McGovern, includes medical ledgers, bills, apothecary receipts, legal documents, colonization contracts, a book about effects of climate and weather changes on disease and death, correspondence, legislative and government records, official government seals, Republic-era currency, and more! All historical documents in this collection have been digitized and can be viewed and accessed alongside the finding aid. The records in this collection were created primarily by Texas-based physicians and surgeons during the pre-Republic era to the beginning of the 20th century, making it the oldest collection of historical documents in the McGovern Historical Center repository.
While conducting research on the individuals who created these historical papers, it was unexpected and extraordinary to discover that most individuals featured in this collection were not only practicing physicians and surgeons; these men were also lawyers, Texas Rangers, soldiers, Senators for the Republic of Texas, chemists, climatologists, authors, editors, legislators—and some were even signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence!
Although the documents themselves may seem fairly ordinary at first, we invite you to look a little closer; each item is rich with context and dripping in history. Whether it be medical papers written during the height of the Republic of Texas, or a somber letter written to a friend whose family was ravaged by yellow fever epidemic in Galveston, you will quickly realize there’s much more to this collection than meets the eye. Not only are these papers fascinating due to the complex medical, political, social, and historical aspects of what life in 19th century Texas was like, it’s also the words penned with quill and ink by each individual that make these papers historically valuable, incredibly rare, and thought-provoking.
For instance, Doctors William Parsons Miller and Branch Tanner Archer survived the Goliad Massacre; Dr. James Fisher Martin attended the wounded at the Battle of San Jacinto, and (fun fact!) Drs. Thomas J. Heard and Ashbel Smith were actually Sam Houston’s attending physicians during the last hours of his life.
Furthermore, these documents reveal an interesting (and horrific) range of “treatments” and medical services provided to the sick and dying. Some therapies relied heavily on a ‘change of air’, together with emetic and laxative purgation and bleeding by cupping or leeching to clear ‘impurities’ from the body. Diseases such as pulmonary tuberculosis (also called consumption) were endemic; others, such as cholera and yellow fever, were frighteningly epidemic and largely misunderstood. Numerous ailments persisted as chronic or without cure. These constraints, coupled with comparably steep expenses of medical care (thus precipitating many probate claims found within this collection seeking payment on outstanding medical debts), paved the way for the emergence and expansion of alternative treatments such as homeopathy, naturopathy, and hydropathy. These therapeutics were promoted and endorsed right alongside the countless, openly deceptive, and ineffective patent pills, powders, colorful liquids, and over-the-counter drugs that flooded the 19th century domestic medicine cabinet.
This one-of-a-kind collection reflects Dr. John P. McGovern’s deep interest in and fascination with the history of 19th century medicine, and the physicians who—for better or worse—employed their “modern” education, training, and expertise providing care to their fellow Texans.
In addition to several upcoming blog posts featuring various items of interest in this collection, plans are now underway to curate and install a special exhibit at the TMC Library in early October. This exhibition will showcase a variety of documents that make this particular historical collection so distinct and noteworthy. Although the items are in exceptionally good condition despite their age, the selection of original items will be on display for a limited time only so as to protect not only the physical integrity of the documents, but to prevent physical degradation due to exposure and damage caused by artificial and UV lights, fluctuating temperatures, high relative humidity levels, and so on. We hope everyone gets a chance to visit, learn from, and connect with the past through the revival and re-examination of what these hidden gems have to say and what they can teach us about the past after almost two centuries of silence and progress.
Lastly, I want to remind our readers that we welcome your thoughts and feedback once you all have had the opportunity to explore the collection online and/or visit the exhibit this fall. Although I am partial to all things history, I am optimistic that most of you will be pleasantly surprised when you dig into MS 021. The rich contextual information relating to famous Texans, major historical events, as well as entries describing rather primitive, and every so often, medically sound approaches to health and patient care by physicians in the 19th century is nothing if not interesting and appealing to the curious mind.
Stay tuned for more blogs, information, and announcements on exhibit display dates. In the meantime, happy reading, and happy learning!