Researching Alumni

by Kathie Johnson, Associate Professor

Kathie Johnson is an Associate Professor and the Curator of History Collections for Kornhauser Health Sciences Library.

As curator of the History Collections at Kornhauser Health Sciences Library I have a variety of duties, one of which is assisting researchers doing family history. Most of the research questions that I receive are genealogical in nature.  Patrons want to verify that an ancestor attended and/or graduated from medical school in Louisville; or they have that information and want a copy of a diploma, a photograph, or information about medical education during that student’s time here.

Catalog of the Louisville Medical College, 1884-85.

Catalog of the Louisville Medical College, 1884-85.

Although the University of Louisville traces its roots to 1798, in reality it became an active and on-going educational institution in 1837, with the founding of the Louisville Medical Institute (LMI), which in 1846 became the Medical Department of the newly formed University of Louisville.  By the end of the 19th century, Louisville had become a center of medical education with seven medical schools, but by the early 1900s, in response to pressure to improve medical education, four of the schools had been absorbed by the UofL Medical Department. Their alumni were officially listed as alumni of ULMD, and any records that still remained from the schools went to the combined ULMD and Jefferson County Medical Society Library, which is now the Kornhauser Health Sciences Library.  The other two schools were closed by 1912.

One of the tools I have available to track alumni is a database that includes most of the medical students who attended LMI/UofL or the schools that were absorbed by UofL from 1837-1908. This database is also available on-line from the Kornhauser Health Sciences Library web page.  While it is a simple matter to search this list for an individual name, there can be some challenges involved. Many of these names were transcribed from hand-written ledger books, some with almost illegible handwriting, and the spelling of names sometimes varies. Many of the students are listed with initials only, so common sir names may prove to be troublesome.  Second, this list is massive, containing over 30,000 names, so as with any project this magnitude, a few names got omitted.  An entry in the database only indicates attendance, not graduation, so follow-up in school records is needed.

All inquiries are written up on an “Information Request Form.” When the work is done, one copy is saved for tallying statistics, while a second is filed alphabetically by the name of the subject of the inquiry.  If the research has already been done for a particular individual, that sheet may answer the entire question, thus this is the next step in my search.  We also maintain extensive biographical reference files as part of the History Collections and a quick check there for a name is part of the process.  These files may contain photographs, articles by or about a person, obituaries, CVs, and lists of publications among other things.

My search in not over after checking the above sources.  Some very helpful tools are the various kinds of medical directories we have on hand. For doctors who could have died before 1929, I check the Directory of Deceased American Physicians, 1804-1929, which contains short biographical entries on most 19th century doctors. Next I go to the national medical directories, which in our collections date from 1878, and were published regularly from 1886 to the present. Entries may include location of practice, school and year of graduation, specialty, and occasionally additional details.  Having over a century’s run of directories helps in tracking these individuals.  If the database listing or any directory entries indicates that the person in question graduated from one of the Louisville medical schools, I can then check the school’s catalog.

Faculty and graduating class 1895.

Faculty and graduating class 1895.

Throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th, the catalogs listed not only the history of the school, the curriculum, the faculty, and the fees; it included the listing of the previous year’s students and graduates. The earliest ones also list the name of the students’ preceptor (or sponsor), their thesis titles, and their home state, or some combination of those three items.  We hold a fairly complete run of catalogs for UofL and the schools absorbed by UofL along with some official alumni lists compiled periodically.

Many people also want to know about the courses offered in medical school, the length of the program, and other such information, which can easily be provided. The 19th and some of the 20th century catalogs are digitized and available in our Digital Collections, .  There one can learn that well into the 20th century a college degree was not required for admission to medical school, or that for most of the 19th century, medical training only consisted of two four-month sessions.

We also house a collection of ledger books from the various schools, dating to 1880 for some, and beginning in 1908 for UofL. These may provide very little information or may include home addresses, names of preceptors, previous education, and even grades. It is a thrill to find a person’s name in a ledger, in 19th century script, especially if detailed information is also included.

If the person in question practiced in Kentucky prior to 1940 another source is the WPA files. One project of the Works Progress Administration during The New Deal in the late 1930s was the employment of writers to document the history of certain aspects of life and then produce a published work with this research.  One of the Kentucky projects was to document the history of medicine. Writers traveled the state transcribing newspaper articles, obituaries and other written documents. This was all combined and indexed for easy searching.

Each time I receive an inquiry, it is a puzzle, a scavenger hunt, and a lot of fun. On top of that, I get paid to do this, making it even better.  As mentioned in an earlier blog – I love my job!!!

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