On my first day as a summer intern at HMWV, another intern and I were given notepads and instructed to peruse the Migrations at the Crossroads of History exhibit and take down notes on anything that caught our eye — things that we liked about the exhibit, things that we might have done differently if we had been in charge of putting it together, and anything in between. The exhibit is wonderful, and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. We reached the American Revolution section of the exhibit, which highlighted prominent Virginian men of the time period, including names such as Andrew Lewis and William Fleming. In one of the display cases, an open book perched over what looked to be a medicine kit caught our eyes.
We leaned closer to examine the face of the page that was being displayed. The illustration on the yellowing page portrayed a small group of men, one of whom was sitting in a chair with his arm outstretched as another man held it straight. Another man stood over them, poised over the seated man’s arm with a saw in his hand. A figure above this illustration showed two stages of a human leg: one fully intact, and the other sawed in half with a hand demonstrating how to deal with the open wound. “Yikes,” we thought, “How about that kind of surgery?”
(Image by Google).
This thought got us wondering: To whom did the book(s) and medical kit belong, and why did he need them? We wanted to know the story behind them, so I took the opportunity to do some searching. Using the vast internet search engine prowess and museum software that we have at our disposal, I did some effective and informative digging. I investigated the spine of the book, upon which I could just barely make out the words “Van Swieten” and “Boerhaave.” These seemed to be obviously foreign names to me, which piqued my curiosity further since I assumed the books belonged to an American from the exhibit. I searched the two names on an internet database and was quickly rewarded with results matching my query.
(Images by Google).
“Van Swieten” (left image) referred fully to Gerard Van Swieten (1700-1772), a Dutch-Austrian physician and pupil of (right image) Dutch botanist/humanist/physician Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738). Boerhaave is often still regarded as the founder of clinical teaching and the modern academic hospital, and whose motto was “Simplicity is the sign of truth.” He attended the University of Leiden, and his presence/contributions to the school greatly enhanced its reputation as a medical school. His pupil, Van Swieten, was a rigorous reformer and a great proponent of the study of literature by scientific and rational means. In keeping with this theme, his penchant for rationality prompted his research on the existence of vampires (that’s right, vampires) in Moravia in response to reports and “sightings.” His conclusion, titled Abhandlung des Daseyns der Gespenster (“Discourse on the Existence of Ghosts”), concluded that the public fear of supernatural beings was ultimately mere superstition and called it “barbarism of ignorance.” Indeed, the humanist movement which included men such as his mentor, Boerhaave, emerged parallel to a rapidly-growing interest in the sciences and rational thinking — it comes as no surprise that men such as Van Swieten in the fields of science and medicine began to condemn the “superstitions” of an earlier medieval age, keeping in step with the changing times.
I opened the museum’s collections database in order to find a clue as to who might have been the owner of a book filled with the knowledge of Van Swieten and Boerhaave. In surprisingly quick time, I found an entry on a collection of books with the subject label “Medical profession” and a description that credited the books under the ownership of William Fleming, one of the figures featured in the Revolution section of the exhibit. Exhilarated with my find, I leafed through the photographs that the database held of the books — sure enough, they were the same books as the ones on display. I discovered that the original volumes of the two foreign scholars’ instruction were originally published in Latin, causing me to wonder whether I actually had the correct texts in mind; however, I discovered (via “Treasures of the Rare Book Room” from the University of Pittsburgh’s online Health Sciences Library System) that English versions of the text titled “The Diseases Incident to Armies: With the Method of Cure” were published in London in 1762 and by Philadelphia publisher Robert Bell in 1776. Accordingly, I decided to conclude my quest for knowledge by confirming the characteristics of William Fleming that might have led to his need for such literature.
(Images by Google).
William Fleming (1729-1795) was a physician, soldier, statesman, and planter who served briefly as the third governor of Virginia during the American Revolution. He was born in Scotland and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh before he joined the Royal Navy and served as a surgeon’s mate. After emigrating to Virginia, he was commissioned into George Washington’s Virginia Regiment and served as a surgeon in conflicts such as the French and Indian War and the Anglo-Cherokee Wars. In the years from 1763-68, Fleming settled in Staunton with his medical practice, and, following those years, he extended his hand into the field of farming as well at his estate, Belmont. As stated in the American roadway history image above, Dr. Fleming also served as commander of the Botetourt Regiment, Commissioner for Kentucky, member of the Continental Congress, Botetourt County representative to the 1788 Virginia ratifying convention for the United States Constitution, and even Acting Governor of the state for a time.
After reading about Dr. Fleming’s background and learning of his profession as such a prominent surgeon, both in the military and his years beyond, I was sufficiently satisfied with the information I had dug up simply by taking a good look at the exhibit display case and connecting the threads of subsequent research. It also turned out that the medical kit propped beneath the book belonged to Fleming as well. I advise anyone to try their hand at spontaneous research when something piques their interest — you never know what sense of gratification you may find in the result!
Come out and see our unique, Roanoke area-centered exhibit, Migrations at the Crossroads of History, to get a closer look at Dr. Fleming’s medical supplies and countless other fascinating artifacts that belonged to Virginians of the past — you might be surprised at what you find.
– Rebecca Williams, Summer Intern ’14