Tuesday, February 3, 2009

When worlds collide.

I haven't mentioned it here before, but I have spent some time over the last couple of months doing volunteer work at the special collections department of a local university library. I have been considering a change of career and going to library school. Before I jumped off that bridge, though, I thought I should have some idea of what doing library work was actually like. I also thought that it would be a great way to find people to write letters of recommendation for me.

My first project has been to inventory the library's World War I collection. They started the collection years ago, based, in part, on the fact that almost the entire male student body enlisted en masse and became part of the Rainbow Division. The donations of several alumni of their war memorabilia made a nice start and the library has, over the years, actively collected things since. They have a lot photograph and letter collections, a German code book, various logs, and lots of ephemera and other things that old men have saved from their youthful adventures. One of the collections they acquired along the was of a army surgeon named William Jason Mixter.

One of the standard instruments used in surgery is the mixter right angle clamp, seen here. Much of the instrumentation for modern surgery was developed in the first half of the 20th century, and most instruments are named after the person who developed them. Since Mixter is an unusual name, I was intrigued. A quick Google search confirmed that William Jason Mixter was almost certainly the inventor of the mixter right angle. What's more, he was a major figure in the history of neurosurgery. He was the first head of Neurosurgery at Massachusetts General, and a pioneer in back surgery. He was the first to realize that herniated discs could pain by compressing nerve roots and the spinal cord, and along with Joseph Barr, did the first successful discectomy.

The library did not buy the Mixter collection because of Mixter's importance in the history of neurosurgery, indeed they were unaware of it. They bought it because contained some interesting items that fit well with rest of the World War I collection. Nevertheless, they did end up with some stuff that was much cooler than they realized. And I got an unexpected collision of two of the different worlds in which I live.

William Jason Mixter

Monday, February 2, 2009

The day the music died

Fifty years ago today, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P Richardson "The Big Bopper" boarded a small plane and flew into legend.