When I was a little girl, I didn’t have any plans to be a doctor when I grew up – although my parents like to tell the story of how, when I was 3, I wanted to be a nurse because I liked the little white hats they wore. I no longer have any memory of that ambition, but I remember what I liked when I was 6, 7, and 8. I wanted to be a paleontologist, a geologist, or an archeologist. To dig stuff up and figure things out. The idea that we might never know for sure what REALLY happened, back in the age of the dinosaurs or in ancient civilizations, made me feel sad and frustrated.
Eventually, the dinosaur craze passed, but not my interest in digging stuff up. In high school, I had a job at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, working with the archivists. For somewhat circuitous reasons, the Library also houses the Ernest Hemingway Collection, complete with a rug made from the skin of a lion. While I was working there, a shipment of books from Hemingway’s personal library arrived, after being in storage in Cuba for many years. My task was to go through the books one by one, looking both for bookworms (truly) and for any notes that Mr. Hemingway might have jotted in the margins. What excitement when I found some! (Notes, that is, not bookworms.) It felt a bit like how I had imagined being an archeologist would feel, unearthing something buried, precious for the sake of the knowledge it would provide.
In college I majored in History and Science. As a student, there was nothing better than sitting in the Rare Books collection or poking around in the darkest corners of the library, reading books that nobody had checked out in decades. My senior thesis was about an obscure 18th century naturalist, who traveled the South Pacific long before Darwin with the goal of growing tropical fruit in Sweden. Although his career did not turn out to be entirely successful, it was a great thrill for me to learn his story and to bring it to the (painfully few) people who read my paper.
Even now, I love the archives. It is easy to dismiss research that is more than a few years old as dated or irrelevant. There are so many years of so many brilliant minds, though, whose work is showcased in the old medical journals. Some of the most useful bits of clinical information that inform my practice were published in papers in the 1950’s or earlier.
For me, talking with a patient and his or her family is like plunging into the archives – but even better. There is a higher purpose: it’s not just finding information and making connections, it’s about finding solutions and making corrections.