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Student theses from 19th-century medical department now available digitally

The 1,800 theses written by Transylvania medical students from 1819-59 are a goldmine of primary research material for anyone interested in medical history. But until recently, the fragile, handwritten theses were only accessible by visiting the library’s Special Collections or contacting Special Collections Librarian B.J. Gooch to request photocopies.

All that is changing, thanks to the Kentuckiana Digital Library, which has digitized the theses and is completing the process of adding them to its online collection of rare books, newspapers, maps, photos, and other historic items that document the history and heritage of Kentucky.

The Transylvania Medical Department was one of only a relatively few medical schools in the United States during the time it was in operation, from 1799-1859. It achieved eminence nationwide and trained more than 4,300 of America’s early physicians, including more than 1,800 who earned a doctor of medicine degree. Every candidate for the M.D. degree was required to write a thesis, and they are part of Transylvania’s medical library, which consists of 8,000 titles, many of which are multi-volume works.

“Having this treasure trove of scholarship digitized and on a website allows anyone across the state, the nation, or even the world to use them,” said Gooch, who frequently receives questions about the theses from students and faculty members at Transylvania and other colleges, scholars, researchers, and descendants of Transylvania medical department students. Before the digitization project, she had to pull the pertinent theses from archival folders and photocopy them.

“If we didn’t already have a photocopy of a thesis, I would make two copies so that if I got another request later, the original thesis wouldn’t have to be handled again,” she explained. “That helps preserve the originals.” 

Now, Gooch directs researchers to the website where they can read the theses online, or she provides them with a PDF version.

“I’ll still get requests from people who want copies, but now I can send them digitally instead of photocopying the originals,” she said.

The digitizing project fulfilled a need that Gooch and Library Director Susan Brown identified several years ago.

“We had considered sending the theses away to have them put on microfilm, but we didn’t have the funds to do that,” said Gooch. “KDL generously supported the project and digitized them. I have to give credit to (library night supervisor) Phil Walker for transferring the boxes back and forth to the University of Kentucky, where KDL is managed, over the course of about a year.”

Gooch also provided KDL with a searchable database of the thesis titles and authors that she had produced several years ago.

Gooch and Brown would like to have other materials in Special Collections added to KDL, including the Coleman Kentuckiana Collection of photos, which was digitized in-house, and manuscripts from Transylvania’s Henry Clay, Jefferson Davis, and Horace Holley collections. The Bullock Collection, a small group of photos, has been on KDL for several years.

Brown explained that KDL’s mission is to provide digital access to archival materials from all over Kentucky so that, with one search, a researcher can see what multiple libraries own and often get digital access to the original materials.

“A lot of other libraries in Kentucky have archival collections that they’d like to have digitized, so KDL is looking for items that have interest on a national level, and that was certainly the case with our medical theses,” said Brown.

View the Transylvania medical theses at http://bit.ly/W6KFup.

medical  theses

The theses written by Transylvania medical students in the nineteenth century are now available to scholars through the Kentuckiana Digital Library.

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