From the inception of the Medical Department of Western Reserve until 1885, each student had to submit a thesis to graduate. These theses, each handwritten in pen on paper, were later bound into a series of 47 volumes. Over time the thesis requirement lapsed and th...
From the inception of the Medical Department of Western Reserve until 1885, each student had to submit a thesis to graduate. These theses, each handwritten in pen on paper, were later bound into a series of 47 volumes. Over time the thesis requirement lapsed and this collection found its way to the archives of the Dittrick Medical History Center in the Allen Memorial Medical Library. The theses collection comprises a unique view on the range and substance of medical students’ interests and preoccupations, and of course, what they were being taught during the two years they spent in medical school. Students typically wrote on diseases, presenting their etiology (their cause or origin), diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment. So, for example, one finds theses on consumption (tuberculosis), “intermittent fevers,” and scarlet fever. Some theses ponder more weighty topics, such as the rational of medication, the nature of contagion, and the nature and effects of miasmas. More mundane surgical topics range from dealing with strabismus (cross eye) to hernia repair. And some these deal with essentials of anatomy and body function, as for example, a thesis on the physiology of the ovaries. Diagnosis looms large and included topics such as symptoms and signs of pregnancy and the role of auscultation and percussion in physical examination. Of course, the quality and coherence varies considerably, as did the aptitude and intellect of the students. One might look in vain for great originality; most pieces were a review of the literature on the thesis topic. But one cannot help but be impressed by students’ expository skill and generally high command of the English language. The theses may use correct (for the time) terminology, but in other respects are written in plain, clear, straightforward manner. Jargon is all but non-existent, so the theses are very accessible to all readers. In summary, the theses of Western Reserve medical students capture a moment in time, just on the eve when the biological sciences transformed medicine and made it less approachable.