Bringing Medical History to Life

Imagine holding in your hands a piece of the rope used to hang the man who assassinated President James A. Garfield in 1882. Or a handwritten letter Ephraim Williams’ sister wrote after his death in 1755, describing her brother’s wounds in great detail and decrying the French and Indian War.

Prof. Spero's History classIn the Williams College Museum of Art’s Rose Study Gallery this month, the students in Professor Patrick Spero’s “North American History” survey course got to do just that. As they considered these primary sources gathered from the college’s archives, the history the students had been learning all semester came vividly to life.

Spero invited Jason Kittler, a teaching doctor affiliated with the University of Massachusetts, to offer a medical perspective on the historical materials and the museum portraits of a Revolutionary War soldier, a conquistador, and an American president that were on view in the Rose Gallery. Considering a 1626 portrait called “A Knight of Santiago,” Kittler prompted students to suggest what might have caused the man’s slight wall eye and need to wear spectacles. History major Jay Gurney ’13 suggested syphilis, a possibility Spero affirmed as having “traveled to Europe, affecting everyone from the lowest to the highest classes.”

In a reference book from 1710 from the Chapin Library of Rare Books called “A Family Dictionary,” Spero’s students found recipes for both pain medication and chicken stew. “People didn’t have hundreds of books in their houses,” said Kittler, who has experience explaining—usually to medical school students—the medical knowledge of a time period based on its historical artifacts.

Why use primary sources to understand medical history? It provides a window into the lives, and lifestyles, of the people who came before. “Letters from this time period always open with how the writer is feeling,” Spero said, holding up an example sheathed in a protective plastic sleeve. “And they’re always feeling bad. That is the most fundamental difference between our lives and those of the people in the 18th and 19th century.”Medical document from special collections

Reflecting on this multifaceted approach to learning, Rudi Yniguez ’16 said, “Today’s class reminds me why this school is so spectacular and why I love learning.”


To learn more about the archives collections visit

To learn more about the Chapin Library collections, visit

To learn more about the Williams College Museum of Art, visit