A new exhibit at the Brigham Education Institute (BEI)’s Knowledge Center celebrates the 110th anniversary of the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital (PBBH) — one of the three institutions that merged to form BWH in 1980 — by offering a glimpse into the past through words, photos and artifacts.
Curated by Hospital Archivist Catherine Pate in honor of the PBBH’s unofficial opening day on April 30, 1913, the exhibit revisits materials from a time capsule assembled and sealed as part of the PBBH’s 50th anniversary in 1963.
“The time capsule was opened in 2013 and its contents were displayed as part of the huge 100th anniversary event that year,” said Pate. “We thought it would be nice to revisit these materials for the 110th anniversary, especially for people who didn’t have a chance to see them in 2013.”
Contrasting the Old with the New
The time capsule includes letters penned by the hospital’s leaders in 1963 to their modern counterparts, as well as photos and relevant newspaper clippings. Pate has added other materials to the exhibit to help viewers understand the context of the display.
“A map of the hospital campus from 1963 was included in the time capsule, and I added a current drawing of what the campus looks like now, so it’s a nice comparison,” said Pate. “They also included a nursing cap and pin from 1963, and I added a photograph of the nurses wearing these items for illustration.”
For the exhibit, Pate also highlighted some interesting, and often amusing, quotes from the letters and paired them with photos of the hospital leaders who wrote them, including David McCord, hospital historian in 1963. “He imagines that in 2013, we would be traveling from the moon and talking to each other on ‘synophones,’” Pate said. “It was funny and predictive at the same time.”
An Honest Imagining of the Future
Letters also captured a feeling of optimism about the future of medicine. “The Brigham was about to perform its first liver transplant, and hopes for its success were high,” Pate said. “Today, liver transplants are very common. And yet, in 1963 this was all new to them.”
Some of the leaders also wrote frankly and honestly about the many hurdles the hospital faced in 1963, including acquiring the necessary land and funds for expansion. “They probably could never have imagined how far we’ve come,” said Pate. “But they initiated our growth by realizing that the era of small hospitals around Boston was ending, and we would ultimately better serve our patients as one, unified medical center.”
The letters also call attention to broader societal changes that have taken place over the past 50 years. “When Alan Steinert, president of the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, wrote the letter to his 2013 counterpart, he addressed it ‘Dear Mr. President,’” said Pate. “This was significant because the person who opened his letter in 2013 was Betsy Nabel, MD, then president of the Brigham, who had a good laugh about that salutation.”
Included in the exhibit is a video of the 2013 recipients of the letters reading them out loud, which viewers can listen to with headphones. For those who are curious to see the complete letters, Pate has included physical copies of the letters in a bin beneath the video.
As part of the festivities surrounding the time capsule’s original unveiling a decade ago, the Brigham community created a new time capsule to be opened in 2063.
Listening to a Piece of History
When asked about her favorite piece of the exhibition, Pate is quick to respond. “My absolute favorite is the recording of the musical play the staff put on in 1963 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the PBBH,” she said. There’s a QR code at the exhibit that viewers can use to hear a sampling of the performance.
Creating a musical was not unusual for this time, remarked Pate. “It’s what people did for entertainment at the Brigham. Every year, they would use popular songs and change the lyrics to make a spoof of hospital life and their bosses,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine residents, interns and nurses having the time today to put together a musical.”
The 110th anniversary exhibit will remain on display through November 2023 at the BEI Knowledge Center, located on the Lower Pike in Thorn 127D.