During the summer of 2006, I visited in Paris the historic headquarters of the Hôpital Necker-Enfants Malades in Rue de Sèvres. I was looking for the plaque commemorating the fundamental invention of the stethoscope, which took place in 1816 inside this hospital, by René Laennec. The plaque could be found on the surrounding wall, not far from the main entrance of the historic structure, and I was able to photograph it easily.
In 2014, during a new visit to the same place, I was very disappointed to discover that the entire stretch of the boundary wall, on which the plaque was placed, had been demolished to make room for the brand of a new hospital wing dedicated to maternal and child medicine. For a moment, I was afraid that the memory of one of the most decisive inventions in the history of medicine had been lost forever. Luckily, after a bit of research, I discovered that the plaque had only been moved inside the hospital’s information office. Obviously, I hurried to photograph it in its new location.
This anecdote demonstrates how often and easily material memories, albeit of marble or granite, are at risk of deterioration, destruction or simply oblivion. Yet, at least for those interested in the historical dimension of a certain profession or research area, few things such as material memories – a plaque, a building, a tomb, a portrait – can evoke an entire era, a single episode or a turning point of history.
The 2004 Code for Cultural Heritage and Landscape (as amended) allows for a more precise protection of the material cultural heritage since the “deterioration or disappearance of any element of the cultural or natural heritage implies a harmful impoverishment for all the nations of the world”, as was specified by the 1972 UNESCO Convention.
Campus Bio-Medico University in Rome recently celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary since its foundation (1993-2018). It is a university which, both for being very young and due to its technical-scientific thematic orientation, cannot yet boast a significant museum heritage. However, since 2008, Campus Bio-Medico promoted Himetop – The History of Medicine Topographical Database, a project to combine the enhancement of material culture in the medical and health field with collaborative web tools.
The on-line database
This open-access and collaboratively growing on-line database collects photos and documents of any kind of material memories related to the history of medicine, from ancient hospitals to works of art, from places related to the life of the protagonists of health history to more or less specialized museum collections. The aim of the database is to help locating and documenting the current state of conservation (and, if possible, the evolution over time) of each site or object. The relevant bibliography and a link to a Google Map, especially dedicated to the Himetop project in a certain nation or geographical area, enrich each record.
Currently, the database, which hosts only contributions in English, contains around 2,500 records relating to places and objects located in almost 40 countries and divided into 25 main categories. Although Italy is, for obvious reasons, the most represented country, the database now receives regular contributions from many other nations. The most active ones, during 2019, were Cuba, Dominican Republic, Portugal, Russia and United Kingdom. During the same year, the database received visits from about 100,000 different users who accessed on average 445 records per day.
The purposes of using the database are multiple: from supporting historical research to promoting cultural and thematic tourism. In the experience of Campus Bio-Medico University, the Himetop project has also an important educational value, having involved hundreds of medical students and other health-related professions in the research of new sites and in the creation of the corresponding records. Many students, thanks to their collaboration in the project, learned to grasp the value of the historical dimension of their future profession or specialty. Some of them continued to collaborate in the development of the database well beyond their exam of History of Medicine.
The THESA research project
Among the main spin-offs of the Himetop project, we can mention the birth, in 2016, of the THESA (THEater Science Anatomy) Project, an interdisciplinary research group that launched a systematic research on existing and disappeared Italian anatomical theatres, with the aim of building a full catalogue of them.
In times of global health emergency, such as those from which we are struggling to get out, a call was echoed countless times in the past few months, for the fair acknowledgement of the work of health and science professionals.
Such a call can find an important ally in the preservation and exploitation of the material cultural heritage that testifies to us in many forms the history and relevance of such professions.