I have always been interested in history. When I went to college, we had to do what they called an “off-campus experience.” It was an internship. I did mine at the Maryland Historical Society and worked in the manuscripts division. And that’s where the archives bug bit me, as I like to say. It was just so much fun working with things like Colonial land grants and Civil War diaries. And then, I ended up in the medical archives field.
I got my start in medical archives at the Medical Archives at Johns Hopkins. From there, I went on to UCSF Medical Center, where I was in charge of archives and special collections. About five and a half years ago, my husband and I decided to make a change; we wanted to come back East. I saw this job as head of Medical Center Archives with NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine and it looked very interesting; archives is my real strength.
What I like about being an archivist is, you learn all kinds of things about history and details of people’s lives. I can show you stories of women and the conditions of their life, giving birth but living in these tenements in lower Manhattan. And things like taking in lodgers who sleep on the floor and their husband’s professions — and there are all these interesting old professions that don’t exist anymore. I just find all that really fascinating. I think someone could really write some really good social history or novellas or both.
A lot of people don’t know what an archivist is. I usually start out by saying it’s kind of like a librarian. A lot of archivists have training as librarians. But we’re dealing with the original records, and that’s what archivists keep. We preserve and provide access to historical records, and it’s not just the records of famous people and presidents or the leaders of the hospital, but ordinary people, as well.
There are so many wonderful things here. What I really like are the records and reports from the maternity and children’s hospitals that merged into New York Hospital, which is now NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. One of those discoveries was the Lying-In Hospital, founded by Dr. David Hosack at the turn of the 19th century as a maternity ward. We’ve been able to digitize and put online all of the reports from the Lying-In Hospital, and also of the other ones, like Manhattan Maternity and Dispensary, New York Infant Asylum, and New York Nursery and Child’s Hospital. You can read these reports and you really get a sense of life in New York City at that time.
I am very proud that we have the papers, the artifacts and the microscope of Dr. George Papanicolaou. He developed the Papanicolaou smear, which is the test for detecting cervical cancer. It’s commonly known as the Pap smear, but a lot of people don’t know the full name. He is also one of the most famous Greek physicians and, in fact, he was on the highest currency of the drachma when Greece had its own money. Since coming here, I have met many Greek physicians and they feel very strongly that the Pap test should be referred to by its full name. They write to me and tell me that. So now, whenever I go to my OB-GYN for my annual test and they ask me to complete the intake form. What are you here for? I write out his full name — the Papanicolaou test.
One thing that’s interesting is that a lot of the documents here, they’re from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, and they’re written in handwriting. I understand that kids now are not learning cursive writing, so I don’t know how someone could have my job and read those records. I guess there will have to be special courses in it. But no matter the form records take, archivists unearth history and, hopefully, the truth.
Lisa Mix is Head of the Medical Center Archives at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine. She preserves and makes available the history of NYPH, Weill Cornell Medicine, and affiliated institutions.