Adventures in the Archives
Adventures in the Archives: “Trust Me, You Won’t Feel a Thing”

Adventures in the Archives: “Trust Me, You Won’t Feel a Thing”

Welcome to our new regular feature, “Adventures in the Archives!”

In this reoccurring series, Nursing Clio bloggers will share interesting finds in the archives and ask our readers for feedback, ideas, and analysis. It’s just like you’re sitting in the dusty archives with us!                                                                                                                                                    

Earlier this summer I was enjoying a productive day in the archives of the Dittrick Medical History Center in Cleveland, Ohio. After lunch, I decided to take a break from the materials I was focusing on (the institutional records of Women’s General Hospital, 1878-1984) and spend a little time skimming through an interesting journal titled “Record of Operations, Woman’s Hospital, September 1, 1920.” The volume looked like an old-fashioned hotel registration book. But the lines of each page were not filled with sloppy signatures and addresses. Instead, someone with very neat handwriting had been tasked with keeping a detailed accounting of every surgical procedure performed by the hospital’s staff. The first entry in the volume was dated September 1, 1920, and the last entry was made on January 15, 1924. The vast majority of the procedures were D&C’s and tonsillectomies, with a handful of Caesarean sections, circumcisions, and other operations. But then I read an entry that nearly made me fall out of my chair: On September 20, 1920, a Mr. Jennings had a tonsillectomy AND a circumcision at the same time. He was not an infant (those were noted as “Baby” rather than “Mr.”, and I’ve never heard of an infant getting a tonsillectomy). His age was not noted. As I pondered what it would be like to be the caretaker of a male of any age who had had a tonsillectomy-circumcision combo (remember, there were no bags of frozen peas, popsicles, or home ice packs in 1920!!!), I came across a second entry for this procedure, this time for a Mr. Shipley. By the time I reached the entries for late August 1921, there were numerous incidences of this surgical double-whammy. At that point, I went back to reviewing the institution’s annual reports. Had to get back to business.

But I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Mr. Jennings and Mr. Shipley. Why were they having these two procedures performed at the same time? Were they both therapeutic, or was one preventive? How old were they? Did they consent themselves, or did someone consent for them? My imagination has been piqued. Unfortunately, my research efforts (read: attempts to avoid working on more pressing matters) have not proven fruitful. A Google© search for “tonsillectomy and circumcision” turned up many articles on both procedures, but only one reference to their simultaneous performance in Maine. This is from an unattributed compilation of anecdotes, so it’s not a reliable source. I also found this reference to a soldier being circumcised (without his prior knowledge or consent) during a tonsillectomy. Taking the search over to Google Books© and Google Scholar© was not any more helpful (although I did read some interesting tidbits!). So I’m putting it out here in the hope that one of you can shed some light on the matter. Anybody have an idea?

Carolyn Herbst Lewis is a co-founder of Nursing Clio. She is the author of Prescription for Heterosexuality: Sexual Citizenship in the Cold War Era (UNC Press, 2010). Her current project is a history of the Chicago Maternity Center.