By Sarah Alger
During the past 200 years, Massachusetts General Hospital has seen buildings rise, come down, and others rise in their place, and has grown to more than 20,000 employees, some of whom spend decades here. As a result (and to the chagrin of our Special Collections department), historical objects might get shifted around before disappearing down some long hallway into someone’s office, to be unearthed years later as the office’s occupant cleans out, prompted by a move or retirement. Then—we hope—we get calls about those objects.
The most recent emergence from the MGH woodwork: a beautifully crafted wooden, glass-fronted cabinet with a brass plaque that reads “Richard C. Cabot Collection.”
Even among the giants who populate MGH history, Richard Cabot stands particularly tall. Born in 1868 into a prominent Bostonian family (they who, as the famous rhyme went, “speak only to God”), he graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1892. He began his career in hematology, working from his own medical practice, and was invited to join MGH staff in 1898.
There he embarked on one of his most memorable contributions: the clinicopathological conference, in which a physician, before a crowd of colleagues, would be given the details of a difficult case and would figure out the diagnosis aloud. In 1911, Cabot would publish Differential Diagnosis, a compilation of several hundred case studies, in which he outlined the need for such a book: “Why do so many physicians treat symptoms only? Why are their diagnoses and the resulting treatment so full of vagueness, groping, hedging, and ‘shot-gun’ prescriptions? Because they do not know how to get beyond symptoms.” These case study examinations live on in the New England Journal of Medicine as the Case Records of the Massachusetts General Hospital.
Cabot’s other major contribution was to establish, in 1905, the first social service of an American hospital. The following year Cabot hired social worker Ida Cannon to organize the new department. Said Cannon: “He was presenting the idea of social service within the hospital where sick patients, although separated from their home and families, nevertheless cannot separate themselves from their personal problems.”
So, the contents of Cabot’s cabinet: none, unfortunately. Our own archives do not contain an inventory, and each time I look at the piece, it offers me a silent taunt for not having yet contacted Cabot’s previous biographers or delved into the more than 200 cartons of his papers at the Countway Library of Medicine.
In these cartons is a file entitled “Words Symptomatic of Our Current Thoughtlessness.” I have no doubt that such a mind would have compiled a fascinating cabinet.