History is often focused on the first instance, the first mention in order to identify when something happened and how it relates to what followed. The New York Times offers a column ‘First Mention‘ that uses its own archives of news articles to determine when something was first reported. This isn’t too different from the way the Oxford English Dictionary traces the etymology of a word to its modern meaning.
As more and more documents are transferred to a digital format, our understanding of the ‘first’ of anything will become more accurate.
As an example, in the spring of 1954, the beginnings of open heart surgery took a major step forward at the University of Minnesota. A team of surgeons including C. Walt Lillehei, Richard Varco, Morley Cohen, and Herbert Warden developed and implemented a new technique called cross circulation.
On April 30th the University News Service held a news conference and issued a corresponding press release heralding the new achievement. Pushed out to the national media, the story of Dr. Lillehei’s success soon became a popular print and television phenomenon.
Historically, this was a major accomplishment in the world of surgery and captured the world’s attention.
From a digital archives perspective, we are now able to re-live those early first moments as presented to the public by locating the procedure’s first mention.
In addition to the New York Times’ pay service, Time.com offers free online access to their articles dating back to 1923. A simple search easily retrieves the May 10, 1954 announcement of cross circulation. Google’s News Archive Search also offers the ability to discover multiple articles on the subject from news sources across the country.
Closer to home, the University Digital Conservancy, the digital archives for the University of Minnesota, provides online access to the original news release on cross circulation issued at 2 PM on April 30, 1954.
There are even some remnants of film surviving from the press conference that have transitioned from analog to digital format. This may not be on par with today’s Driven to Discover videos but it surely captivated the interest of viewers at the time.
Tracking down these first mentions usually provide other insights that historical researchers are unaware of. For instance, until Herbert Warden started the pump in the above video, I had no idea that cross circulation was a LOUD technology; something akin to an air compressor in the operating room.