Learning from Those Who Went Before Us: An Interview with M.C. Wilhelm, M.D.

Joan Klein and M.C. Wilhelm

Morton C. (M.C.) Wilhelm, M.D. is the Joseph Helms Farrow Professor Emeritus in Surgical Oncology at the University of Virginia School Of Medicine.  He is an accomplished surgeon and has contributed to many publications, including A History of Cancer Care at the University of Virginia 1901 – 2011.  Last fall, Dr. Wilhelm was honored by the Commission on Cancer of the American College of Surgeons for his early work in emphasizing support practices for cancer patients. He is the first recipient of the award.  I sat down with Dr. Wilhelm in early February and quickly found out that having a conversation with him is like a cup of hot cider on a cold winter’s day.  His stories are engaging and his opinions are based on years of experience.  His words linger like the sweet smell of apples and cinnamon.

Know the ones that came before you.  Learn from their mistakes so you can be a pioneer instead of someone who reinvents the wheel.  Reach your pinnacle. These were the words that resounded after my conversation with Dr. Wilhelm.  So much so that I found myself with a thirst to revisit the masters of library science, such as Dewey, Garfield, Billings, and Ranganathan.

Who are the masters in your profession?  What thinking contributed to the design of the processes that you encounter at work?  How often do you ask why?

And how did a prominent surgeon end up spending his retirement years in Historical Collections & Services at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library?  Read on.

What brought you to Historical Collections?

Lifelong Commitment Award from the Commission on Cancer of the American College of Surgeons

I sort of got started by accident.  One time I ran into Gretchen (Arnold) and Joan (Klein) and I told them I was bored and needed something to do.  They both agreed that there was work for me to do, and Joan invited me to Historical Collections.  About that time, my good friend, Oscar Thorup, died after a long illness.  Oscar was a Hematologist and understood the value of medical history.  His research interests focused on Thomas Jefferson’s correspondence with physicians.  He published on the topic and spoke about it around the world.  Oscar’s family asked me if I’d like to have his papers, and, in a weak moment, I said yes, and soon ten boxes showed up at my house.  I spoke with Dan Jordan at Monticello, who knew Oscar.  He said they would like his materials at Monticello and he asked me to curate the papers, because they needed a physician to do it.  For almost four years, I worked at Monticello editing Jefferson’s correspondence with about six physicians.

At the same time, I started working here, and we started our work on the history of cancer care at the University of Virginia.  I liked doing the research and, since I could no longer do surgery and I needed more than golf, I continue to spend my time here in Historical Collections.  Currently, I’m working with Historical Collections staff on a web page about Jefferson and medical education.  So, again, I fell into it, and I like it.

Let’s talk about the Internet.  At what point did you start doing research on the Internet?

When I was at Monticello, I needed to look at other letters, which I was able to find on the Internet.  I’m not comfortable sitting in front of a screen for a long period of time, so I still use print materials.  I think we also need to be aware that on the web you are often looking at something that someone else has culled, so it’s important to look at original sources.

What would your advice be to someone just entering the medical profession about the importance of knowing the history of medicine?

As a surgeon, I needed to know the history of the surgical treatment of a particular disease.  In other words, you need to know the background on why an operation was done the way it was.  In the 70s, right after Medicare, the federal government realized they had no standards of practice.  So they formed a group called EMCRO (Experimental Medical Care Review Organization), and our medical society applied for and received a major grant.  Our job was to develop standards of care in a number of different areas.  We read all the literature in order to justify each step in a surgical procedure, which shaped my thinking as a surgeon.

Where do you get that information?

You go through old textbooks written by people considered to be good surgeons.  If you don’t know the history, generations will end up making the same mistakes as previous generations.

At what point in the education process do you instill medical history?

I think medical students now get a little more exposure to history than we did.  And maybe medical students have a broader background coming into medical school than we did; we were strictly science.  Therefore, I think the medical student today is more broadly educated to appreciate the value of history.  If you are in a certain field of medicine, you need to know how it was done, who are the masters, and why did they did it the way they did it.  If all of this was done twenty years ago, you don’t need to make the same mistakes, so you can spend your time advancing your field.  And the value of history, of course, doesn’t apply just to medicine.  There was a PBS special a while back that featured Paul McCartney sitting down with master musicians, all of whom had studied music before they had entered their chosen genre.  The music was incredible.

You may have a talent that is truly remarkable, but if you don’t go back and get the background you will never reach your pinnacle.  We should all be striving to reach our pinnacle, and making our imprint on future generations.

Additional Information:

A History of Cancer Care at the University of Virginia, 1901-2011

Sharp, Henry and Morton C. Wilhelm. A History of Cancer Care at the University of Virginia, 1901 – 2011. Lancaster: DEStech Publications, 2011. This book can be purchased at the UVA Bookstore, or signed copies can be purchased at Historical Collections for $35 (payable by check).  Please call 982-0576 for further information.

Historical Collections & Services, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library at the University of Virginia.  Joan Klein, Alvin V. & Nancy Baird Curator for Historical Collections (924-0052)/ Susan Yowell, Historical Collections Specialist (982-0576).

 

 

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