Questioning photographs

img0039.jpgThe University of Minnesota has long been a leader in medical advances and technologies. Since the 1960s, the University has been synonymous with advances in transplant procedures. Prior to that, the medical school gave rise to corrective open heart procedures. Two of the men that were involved with this earlier era were C. Walton Lillehei and Richard Varco.

Lillehei’s research focused on maintaining normal oxygen levels within the blood while simultaneously operating on the heart by using an external pump and blood donor to by-pass the heart. Varco’s research along with John Lewis and Mansur Taufic investigated ways to decrease the need for oxygen by inducing hypothermia and creating a longer period necessary for by-passing the heart’s pumping action.

This picture captures a moment when these two men (Lillehei on the left, Varco on the right) are engaged in surgery. However, it does not take a heart surgeon to recognize a peculiarity in the photo. An avid viewer of Grey’s Anatomy or any other medical drama would be able to point out that the men should be wearing their masks and not letting them hang down from their necks.

The answer, however, is simple. Lillehei and Varco are performing surgery, but at the time of the photograph, the work they were doing was still in development. A majority of this work was done on laboratory dogs, as is the case in this picture (likely postmortem).

The photograph is at first simple and then complicated. It carries the weight of the researchers and their efforts and the risks and sacrifices of the subjects (both human and canine) and reminds the viewer of the give and take nature of science.

In archival terms, photographs should elicit questions regarding not only their content (as I have done above) but also their intended purpose and potential consequences. In doing so, the archivist and researcher cannot work in a vacuum. The photograph needs to be placed in its original context by using the archival sources and historical references available.