A look at U.S. military-related items provides an avenue of navigation into the rich holdings at VCU Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives
Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013
Anyone with a baseline familiarity with Special Collections and Archives at Virginia Commonwealth University’s James Branch Cabell Library and Tompkins-McCaw Library for the Health Sciences is probably aware of some of the popular specialties, such as comic books and historic medical instruments. But the archives are vast, and a deeper dig yields both surprising finds and common threads. One connective theme is the inclusion of artifacts, manuscripts, photographs and books in the collections from centuries of U.S. military history, spanning from before the Civil War to the modern era. A selective sampling of items in this vein gives some idea of the eclecticism of the entire collections and archives.
During World War I, U.S. Army Base Hospital No. 45 organized and trained at the Medical College of Virginia before moving to within a few miles of the front lines in France. Tompkins-McCaw’s selection of Unit 45 photographs, many taken by Benjamin Alston Stimson when he worked in the X-ray department at Toul, France, in 1918, include views of the hospital, doctors, nurses, soldiers and nearby towns. Special Collections also has on display a uniform belonging to Robert Grant Willis, M.D., a Richmond physician who graduated from the University College of Medicine in 1913 (the same year UCM merged with MCV) and served in the medical corps of Unit 45.
The formidable and well-loved comic arts collection at Cabell encompasses more than 150,000 items, including a full run of PS Magazine: The Preventative Maintenance Monthly, while it was under the direction of Will Eisner from 1951 to 1972. The U.S. Army publication, meant to educate and amuse active military service members, is rare by itself but made even more valuable by its association with Eisner, a cartoonist legend who helped pioneer the graphic novel and formalize comics studies. This collection was donated largely by Fred Faulkner, a Kentuckian whose father was in the Army and whose son-in-law, Phillip Gerk, Ph.D., is a professor in the VCU School of Pharmacy. Faulkner would visit VCU and spend hours perusing comics while his son-in-law taught class. One day he asked the librarians if they’d be interested in PS Magazine, and he soon showed up with a surprisingly large suitcase full.
Tompkins-McCaw’s medical artifacts collection contains thousands of instruments dating back to the early 1800s, and none has a more unique (and, to the modern sensibility, squirm-inducing) backstory than this tonsil snare from 1942. J. Warren Montague, M.D. (H.S. ’41/M), was serving in North Africa during World War II when he had to perform an unanticipated tonsillectomy. With the help of a materials-gathering Air Force sergeant, he improvised. The finger pieces were carved from the aluminum propeller of a downed French plane, while the other parts were made from a drill rod, part of a typewriter and a bicycle spoke. In both Africa and southern France, Montague used the snare to remove the tonsils of about 300 U.S. servicemen throughout the course of the war.
William E. Blake Jr., Ph.D., professor emeritus from VCU’s history department, donated his collection of World War II-era “true life” comics to Special Collections and Archives at Cabell in 2001. He has also supplied a robust assortment of war-related ephemera. Blake was 14 when the U.S. entered the war, and his scrapbooks, buttons and warplane trading cards offer a fascinating glimpse into a home front teenage boy’s perspective on overseas conflict.
This article was originally published in the fall 2013 VCU Alumni magazine. Active, dues-paying members of VCU Alumni receive a subscription to the magazine as a benefit of membership. To read the whole magazine online, join today! For more information, visit www.vcualumni.org.