By Katelyn Meehan
Being a student in library and information science at Dominican University and coming to the Rush Archives for an internship, it was difficult for me to understand the complex history of Rush University Medical Center and how it has evolved into the institution it is today. In the archives, I was exposed firsthand to the people who were involved in the development of Rush, and the material they created during the process. Having all this exciting knowledge at my fingertips was an amazing experience. But when faced with a mountain of information, how could I uncover just one piece of Rush’s history?
By processing a collection of someone from Rush, I found my answer. I was assigned the task of processing the small collection of Rush Medical College president, instructor and ophthalmologist Edward L. Holmes, 1828-1900. I was presented with a box that contained seemingly random papers, instructions on what to do with the papers, and a note pad to write down my observations about the collection as I examined it.
Rush’s assistant archivist, Nathalie Wheaton, recently told me, “Everyone has a story; you just have to find it.” The story behind Edward Holmes was his humanitarianism.
While Holmes was a medical pioneer and an educator, I think his greatest impact was his humanitarian efforts. One example of his great work was his founding of the Central Free Dispensary, which was located at Rush. In his own notes from 1899, Holmes described the Central Free Dispensary as an institution that “was organized in 1867 for the gratuitous treatment of the sick poor and for no other purpose.” Holmes was concerned with providing medical care to those people who needed it regardless if they could pay for it or not. The Central Free Dispensary raised awareness about public health and evolved to become the outpatient service for Presbyterian Hospital in the 1940s and the Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Health Center in 1961.
Another of Holmes’s great humanitarian efforts was the founding of the Chicago Charitable Eye and Ear Infirmary in 1858. Again, Holmes gathered the help of other physicians, including the founder of Rush Medical College, Daniel Brainard, to help establish the infirmary and attempt to meet the needs of the citizens of Chicago. The infirmary provided treatment for patients, mainly poor children, with ear and eye problems. Without the service of the infirmary, many of the children would have been left blind for life. Over the years, the infirmary was taken over by the state of Illinois, becoming the Illinois Charitable Eye and Ear Clinic, and treated an increasing number of patients, including members of the military. After an affiliation with the College of Physicians and Surgeons, in 1943 the Illinois Eye and Ear Infirmary joined with the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Holmes showed a drive and determination in providing care to patients who needed it. He overcame a lack of staff, a lack of funds, obsolete facilities and equipment, administrative indifference and political obstruction to make a difference in the world. One of the most exciting things that I learned through this discovery of a piece of Rush’s history was that the humanitarian efforts Holmes made in the 1850s are still making a difference today in 2011.
Katelyn Meehan is pursuing a Master of Information and Library Science degree through Dominican University’s Graduate School of Information and Library Science. She recently ended her semester-long practicum at Rush University Medical Center Archives.