The fate of historical documents

In May 1954, the editor of the Vancouver Medical Association Bulletin wrote, “This issue of the Bulletin is intended to commemorate one of the greatest events in the medical history of British Columbia—the granting of the degree of Doctor of Medicine to the first graduates from the Faculty of Medicine of the University of British Columbia. This is a matter of intense pride and satisfaction to all citizens of British Columbia, and in no lesser degree, we think, it is important to the whole of Canada: for it marks the beginning of a steady stream of well-trained medical men and women, made available to the whole medical structure of our country.” This is quoted from a document preserved at the UBC library.

There are many other documents recording the history of our profession, our organization, and our relationships with society. Dr Brad Fritz wrote two histories related to the BC Medical Association and Doctors of BC: a history of publicly funded medicare and a history of the BCMA from 1965. Dr Frank Patterson, an original UBC Medical School teacher, reminisced of many old surgeons in The Cutting Edge: Reminiscences of Surgery at the Vancouver General Hospital and the University of British Columbia, 1915–1985. Wendy Cairns recently published a history of UBC Medical School. All these histories rely in large part on original sources.

I recently had the privilege of reviewing the minutes of Medical Staff Association executive and general meetings from Royal Columbian Hospital (RCH) dating back 70 years to 1950. They describe some battles and conflicts, some of which were not solved immediately. Indeed, on the first page of the minutes from 1951, we find the report of the OR service: “Anaesthetists and surgeons have been late in starting operations. The matter is to be brought up at the general meeting and some form of discipline applied to consistent offenders … It was suggested that the offenders be banned from elective surgery booking.” One can presume that the punishment was not implemented since the problem has not completely disappeared—or perhaps new generations of surgeons and anaesthetists have started offending again. Who would imagine that we have not learned that lesson!

I happened upon these valuable historical documents because the RCH is currently rebuilding, and the documents were stored in the basement of a building that is now a hole in the ground. Our structures have undergone constant reorganization of one sort or another; consequently, many others will likely face the problem I am currently addressing of what can be done with these important historical documents.

Medical staff associations have become essentially virtual in structure. Storing memorabilia and records is not a priority for health authorities, and carving out a space for them can be a significant challenge. However, without storage for such documents our local history will be lost.

General archives do store medical material—Vancouver General Hospital has many documents in the City of Vancouver Archives, and RCH similarly has some material stored in the New Westminster Archives. However, these organizations suffer from space constraints as well, and I have not found them and other local institutions willing to adopt further material such as the MSA records. There appears to be a NIMBY attitude toward storage of documents—sure, it’s important, and good for you for thinking of it, but I’m sorry my backyard is full.

Doctors of BC helps form the collective memory of its physician members. While also challenged for space, it does support an archival system and has staff devoted to that task, and it may be a uniquely suitable repository for such records. It has been said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and indeed many of the issues we contend with today are ones we have seen before. Let us not repeat the errors. I propose that Doctors of BC take on the small job of facilitating this project.
—Richard N. Merchant, MD, FRCPC
Past President, RCH Medical Staff Association

Richard N. Merchant, MD, FRCPC. The fate of historical documents. BCMJ, Vol. 63, No. 7, September, 2021, Page(s) 272 - Letters.

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