By Nathalie Wheaton
When Brenna Farrell’s 18 month-old son Marty swallowed medicated diaper ointment early one morning, her husband Nick heeded the instructions on the ointment’s label and called the Brooklyn couple’s local poison control center — which assured them Marty would be fine.
Here in the Chicago area, if you or someone you know has consumed or been exposed to a toxic substance, or have questions about how to avoid such an exposure, you can get help from the Illinois Poison Control Center, one of 55 poison control centers nationwide.
Chicago is home to the oldest poison control center in the United States, because these centers have their origin in what now is Rush University Medical Center. Those origins recently were included as part of the “Poison Control” episode of Radiolab, a public radio show based in New York that airs locally on WBEZ (91.5 FM). As the archivist of Rush University Medical Center, I assisted Farrell — a Radiolab contributor — with the episode, as I do for a wide range of patrons from both inside and outside of Rush.
The Radiolab episode is a great occasion to look back at the role Rush, and pharmacist Louis Gdalman, played in the development of poison control centers, and to take a look at some of the records in the Rush Archives that drew Radiolab’s attention.
Gdalman joined the pharmacy staff of St. Luke’s Hospital, one of Rush’s predecessor hospitals, in 1930. In the following years, he saw firsthand the need for a system to provide quick responses in cases of poisonings, chemical exposures and other injuries and illnesses caused by toxic substances. He began compiling information on index cards in an attempt to make this process more efficient.
In 1953, Gdalman’s hope for a centralized service for responding to these requests was realized when he created the first poison control center in the United States, here in Chicago. It was perfect timing: During the 1950s, the market for a wide variety of household cleaning products skyrocketed. Homes suddenly were filled with potential poisons without much thought about the trouble they could cause.
Because of the increased risks of poisonings, the public had to be educated about keeping these items out of reach of children, caps had to be redesigned to make them safer and childproof, and so on. These steps seem so common sense now, it’s easy to take them for granted.
Available around the clock
In 1962, after the merger of St. Luke’s Hospital with Presbyterian Hospital, the Chicago Board of Health named Gdalman director of the Master Poison Information Center at Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Hospital. The center provided 24-hour services.
So did Gdalman himself. His wife, Kathryn “Kitty” Gdalman — a 1940 graduate of St. Luke’s Hospital School of Nursing and former member of the Rush Woman’s Board — recalled to Radiolab that her husband made himself available to phone calls 24 hours a day, at work and at home — even if he was in the bathtub!
In 1975, Gdalman retired from Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center (now Rush University Medical Center) and was appointed emeritus director of pharmacy services and pharmacology at the Medical Center and a professor of medicine at Rush Medical College.
The Rush Poison Control Center was transferred in 2001 to the Metropolitan Healthcare Council and now is known as the Illinois Poison Center.
The Rush Archives holds records related to the development of poison control, Gdalman’s work at Rush’s pharmacy going back to 1930, and many documents from and photographs of the pharmacy department going back to its earliest days.
To learn more about the history of Rush and the Rush Archives collections, visit us online at https://rushu.libguides.com/rusharchives.
Poison Control contact information: You can call the national Poison Help Hotline at (800) 222-1222. Text POISON to 797979 to save the number in your phone.
Nathalie Wheaton, MSLS, is the archivist of the Rush University Medical Center Archives. For questions about the Rush Archives or to request her assistance with research using the archives’ materials, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.