Herb Bercovitz OWN – MGH Archivist

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A treasure trove of Montreal medical history

Montreal General Hospital’s resident archivist and semi-official historian Herb Bercovitz, 89, looks at the hospital’s first patient admissions book dating from 1822-1928. It’s one of many hospital artifacts he has collected over many years.
Photograph by: Dave Sidaway , The Gazette

A treasure trove of Montreal medical history

Archivist’s MGH collection will go to new MUHC superhospital

(Montreal Gazette) He was 38 years old, listed as a Protestant and an Anglus (Latin for Englishman), residing in what was then known as the village of “La Chine.”

Not much else is known about Richard King, except that on May 3, 1822, he became the first patient to be admitted to the Montreal General Hospital on what was then Dorchester Blvd., near St-Dominique St.

King was suffering from hepatitis. Most of his fellow patients were infected with typhus and cholera, which were running rampant in the city at the time.

Nine days later, King was “cured” and charged 10 pence, according to the hospital’s “in door patients” book. There were two other medical-outcome columns in that book: “relieved” and “dead.” Morphine was commonly used to relieve patients of their ailments.

But others died in agony in the 70-bed hospital — built at a cost of 5,865 pounds. A patient by the name of Terence O’Brien, age 44, of “the Church of Rome” and originally from Hibernia (Ireland), was admitted on Oct. 28, 1826, and died two days later. The cause of death? Delirium tremens.

These pages of medical history — along with a rickety wooden wheelchair and vials of tiny tablets containing “mercurous chloride” and “capsicum powder” for the treatment of diarrhea — are among the many rarities that are carefully preserved on the 21st floor of the hospital that has stood on Cedar Ave. since 1955.

“This is valuable stuff. I couldn’t let it go to waste,” said Herbert Bercovitz, the Montreal General’s volunteer historian and medical artifact archivist for nearly a quarter-century.

Bercovitz, who says he’s “88 and a half,” worked as the Montreal General’s director of hospital services until his retirement in 1989. But he never truly retired, and instead focused his energies on cataloguing thousands of distinct items from the hospital that might otherwise have disappeared into the dustbin of history.

“Come, take a look at this,” he said of one of his prized finds. He bent down, and opened the metal drawer of a grey filing cabinet.

He gingerly pulled out a wool maroon-and-white jersey — probably dating to the late 19th century — of the MGH hockey team. On top of the filing cabinet were two hockey trophies: the Urinal Cup and the Bedpan Cup — both slightly tarnished replicas of the real things.

As the McGill University Health Centre plans to move many of its clinical activities to the $1.3-billion superhospital in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce by the summer of 2015, archivists have been busy collecting fine art and antique medical equipment from the Royal Victoria Hospital. An archivist will also visit Bercovitz’s office to take stock of his inventory at the Montreal General, said Ian Popple, a MUHC spokesman.

“There’s been a gap of some years from the time (Bercovitz) started this collection and when the archivists began the work,” Popple said. “Who knows what would have happened to this stuff without him.”

Bercovitz, who still has a shock of undyed black hair on his head, couldn’t contain his enthusiasm of his collection. He pointed to an ornate brass samovar that used to dispense tea. He opened what looked like a clarinet case and grabbed a stainless steel tube.

“It’s a gastroscope,” he said. “The kind we use today are flexible.”

The annals of medicine tell the story of continuous refinement from big, crude devices to ever-smaller, more precise instruments. There are very few medical devices in Bercovitz’s dusty office that are small.

Next to his desk stood a large wooden box with a glass dome on it.

“Patients sat in the box and breathed and their pulmonary function was measured,” he explained.

Bercovitz likes to show visitors a black-and-white photo of a patient on an operating room table, a gas mask over the man’s face. Doctors and nurses are crowded around him, their hands stuck in his abdomen. Directly beneath the patient, under the operating room table, sits a bucket to collect blood and surgically removed tissue.

Finally, Bercovitz fished out a black leather-bound pharmacy pill kit manufactured by Park Davis & Co. of Detroit. He opened the kit to reveal an anachronistic row of glass tubes that still contained pills. On each tube is a sticker. “Tonsillitis” read one sticker, with a list of active ingredients that includes traces of belladonna leaves and byronia, a flowering plant of the cucumber.

“I’m emotionally attached to this hospital,” Bercovitz said, “and these things give me such pleasure.”

Also:
Heritage Hero: Herb Bercovitz
A treasure trove of Montreal medical history
May 9, 2013
(MUHC) When Herb Bercovitz started working at the Montreal General Hospital (MGH) as director of Hospital Services, he had no idea what treasures lay hidden within its walls.
“It was 1988, the year before I retired. I was waiting for the elevator when a colleague told me she had come across some valuable objects,” recalls Bercovitz. “She wasn’t sure what to do with them and neither was I, so I told her to bring them to my office.”
This soon became Bercovitz’s line. “People just kept coming to talk to me about the things they found. I didn’t know what to do with everything, so I started cataloguing it. By the time I retired, my office was full.”
He mentions having found the first MGH admitting book dating back to 1822, an old pulmonary function device, a plethora of old photographs and more. “As I began to collect things, I started interviewing people. I met with physicians, administrators, even a woman who used to be a waitress at the hospital when it was on Dorchester!”
“All these objects represent the beginnings of the hospital,” says Bercovitz, who was so devoted to his task that when he retired he continued as the keeper of historical MGH art and artefacts as a volunteer. “We have such a rich history―we have to make sure to protect and share it.”

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