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From the Rush Archives: Medical Education during the Germ Theory Transition

by Nathalie Wheaton on 2020-09-29T08:00:00-05:00 in Archives, History | 0 Comments

-Post assisted by Rush Archives Work Study Student Kirsten Petrarca, Doctoral Student in Audiology, Rush University.

In today’s medical centers, it can be easy to take for granted the hundreds of procedures that are in place to keep us safe and healthy thanks to the widespread acceptance of germ theory. However, 140 years ago, students at Rush Medical College had the unique opportunity to learn in the midst of the development of germ theory and antiseptic methods.

When Lawrence H. Prince enrolled at Rush Medical College in 1882, germ theory was a controversial topic. In 1938, he looked back on his time as a Rush Medical College student and, also, as the first intern of its teaching hospital, Presbyterian Hospital, after it was established in 1883.

CAPTION: Lawrence H. Prince, MD, 1938. From The Bulletin of the Presbyterian Hospital of the City of Chicago, January 1938[1]

Joseph Lister’s antiseptic surgical methods and Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch’s germ theory of disease were popularized in the 1870s, and were still relatively new phenomena at the time Prince was enrolled at Rush Medical College.  

His 1938 reflection in the Bulletin of the Presbyterian Hospital of the City of Chicago newsletter is a very interesting piece. In it, he states the following, referring to his time as a Rush student in the 1880s:

"...Medical students of that time were particularly fortunate because of the opportunity offered to study the revolutionary steps from the pre-antiseptic days to the anti-septic methods which were the beginning of modern aseptic surgery. At college I heard both sides discussed with enthusiasm. There were those who urged 'no healing without suppuration' and talked of 'laudable pus,' terming the germ theory a 'myth.' On the other side, we heard about 'air borne germ infection' and other theories which have revolutionized surgical technique. At that time the carbolic acid spray was largely depended upon..."

"...To compare the hospital of a half century ago or the work done therein with the wonderful hospital of today is simply impossible. The same is true as regards the progress of any of the sciences. But it must be remembered that there were many men and women of those days who were thinkers and workers — embryonic leaders of today who did wonderful work in establishing realities out of their studies so that the hospitals and the manufacturers had to hasten their steps in order to keep up. And, in another fifty years, what is being done today will be looked upon as full of mistakes. What we learned from the discussions pro and con relative to all having to do with surgery, for instance, was responsible for many of the remarkable things accomplished since I was an intern in Presbyterian Hospital..."

Another well-known figure in Rush history, James B. Herrick, MD, also reflected on this pivotal time in medical history in Rush Medical College's yearbook, The Pulse, in 1895. In Dr. Herrick's piece, he describes the surgical teaching clinics of those earlier years, particularly the expertise of Moses Gunn, MD, Chair of Surgery, Rush Medical College, 1867-1887.

CAPTION: Dr. Moses Gunn's Surgical Clinic in 1887, from Rush Medical College’s yearbook, The Pulse, 1895. [2] Here, Gunn poses with his assistants in 1887, months before his death. His son Malcolm Gunn, Rush Medical College, class of 1890, stands next to the nurse, Miss Headline. Famed physician James B. Herrick, MD, is taking notes, second from right.  

Accompanying this photograph in the 1895 yearbook is a brief remembrance by Herrick, describing Gunn’s clinics.  “I knew Dr. Gunn’s clinic when it was in the transition period from the septic to the aseptic condition,” Herrick’s recollection begins.  He goes on to quote Professor Gunn: “’I don’t know much about the truth or falsity of the statements concerning bacteria…but I do know that if I wash my hands and wash my patient and my instruments, and use carbolic acid and iodoform, I can accomplish results that I never dreamed of fifteen years ago.’”

If you’re interested in the life and times of surgeon Moses Gunn, MD, please read “Memorial Sketches of Doctor Moses Gunn,” [3] which was compiled by his wife, Jane Augusta Terry Gunn and published in 1889.  

Want to learn more about the history of Rush or the Rush Archives collections? Explore the Rush Archives website, or contact the archivist, Nathalie Wheaton, MSLS.

All documents and photographs belong to the records collections of Rush University Medical Center Archives, Chicago, Ill. Contact the archivist for permissions and full citations.




Related Blog Posts:

From the Rush Archives: James B. Herrick, MD, the 1918 Influenza Pandemic and Sickle Cell Anemia:

From the Rush Archives: Professor Gunn's Clinic, 1887:

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