Diaries, artifacts tell stories of SOM alumni

Nov 21, 2016, 07:51 AM by Christopher Smith Gonzalez
Library-Ex11-2016

Dr. Herman Barnett III went from World War II fighter pilot to becoming the first African American admitted to medical school in Texas.

Dr. Edith Bonnet might have never become a doctor, and one of the first woman interns at John Sealy Hospital, if her beau had made it to the train station.

Along with a distinguished medical career in El Paso, Dr. Felix Miller also  spent a day in 1911 patching up soldiers in Pancho Villa’s army while bullets whizzed by.

These and many more stories of UTMB School of Medicine alumni who graduated between 1893 and1953 are on display at the Moody Medical Library through January. The stories are told through photographs, letters, diaries and other materials that make up part of the Truman G.Blocker, Jr. History of Medicine Collections at UTMB.

“This exhibit shows the long-term impact that a lot of these people have had and the contributions they’ve made to society,” said Robert Marlin, archivist at UTMB. “We hope that this is the first in a series of exhibits recognizing UTMB alumni.”

Alumn Bag copyArtifacts and documents from 15 different School of Medicine alumni are on display on the third floor of the library. The exhibit begins with Dr. Thomas Terrell Jackson, a member of the second graduating class, and continues with the stories of men and women who broke through barriers, were witnesses to history and pushed the practice of medicine forward.

Visitors can read pages from the diary of Dr. Howard Dudgeon, a member of the class of 1899 who was an intern at John Sealy Hospital during the devastating 1900 Storm.

“I stood at one of the big windows in the surgical ward and watched the beautiful, large cottonwood trees that lined the walk in front of the hospital go down one by one… It looked like the very anchors of night had failed because darkness blew in upon us before its accustomed hour,” Dudgeon wrote.

Also on display are one of the first silicone breast implants created by Dr. Thomas Cronin and a replica of the first X-ray machine in Texas created by professors and students at UTMB.

A well-known name in Houston, Barnett was the first African-American to attend UTMB’s School of Medicine. As a child Barnett dreamed of becoming a doctor and learning to fly.

Alumn DSC_0077 copyHe flew as a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. After the war he applied to medical school. At the time, no African-American had been enrolled at UTMB but with the help of the Department of Veterans Affairs, which was paying for Barnett’s tuition through the G.I. Bill, Barnett was able to officially enroll as a student at UTMB.

Marlin explained that Barnett still faced many more challenges and some ugly instances of racial discrimination, but he would go on to be a distinguished physician in Houston, serving on the State Board of Medical Examiners and being elected president of the Houston School Board.

Barnett said he “hoped to see the day when it was no longer news when someone became the first black to do anything.”

Marlin said particularly interesting to many current students are stories like those of Bonnet.

Chance had a part in bringing Bonnet to UTMB: “Lefty,” the man she was to marry, never showed up to an arranged meeting, so instead of marriage Bonnet chose medical school. But determination and hard work played a much larger role in her story.

Bonnet’s diary chronicles both her successes as well as the struggles she faced as a student. On her first day of class she wrote, “I’m a little scared of what may be coming but I think this is the right thing for me to be doing so know I’ll be alright.” Only six weeks later, she lamented that she “failed in a Materia Medica quiz and am doing very poorly in Anatomy and Chemistry. It’s baffling to work hard and get nowhere.”

Bonnet graduated from UTMB in 1926 and applied to be an intern at Harvard University and at John Sealy Hospital. On display is a letter from Harvard University telling Bonnet they were not accepting women “due to the fact that we have not the proper housing facilities.”

When UTMB also rejected her and another woman graduate of UTMB, Francis Vanzant, the two appealed the decision and took their case all the way to Gov. Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, the first woman governor of Texas. The state Legislature would rule that a state school could not discriminate against women, and Bonnet and Vanzant became the first women interns at John Sealy Hospital.

The Blocker Collections was recently awarded a grant from the Portal to Texas History to digitize the Edith Marguerite Bonnet, M.D. Papers, which will be available online next year.

“I think the reason why so many people have connected with Dr.Bonnet’s collection is because it is a story of self-doubt, struggle, perseverance and ultimately, success,” Marlin said.