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Preserving Plaques
Some memorials are more mysterious than others.

On more than 500 commemorative plaques throughout the Hopkins Medicine community are names engraved in brass, bronze, marble, slate, steel and glass. In some instances, however, they might as well have been written on water.

Such is the case for John Hewetson, a Hopkins physician once renowned for his research on malaria alongside such luminaries as William Welch and William Sydney Thayer. Hewetson was so highly regarded that in 1913, sculptor Victor David Brenner—the man who designed the Lincoln penny—was commissioned to create a bronze portrait plaque honoring “the physician, the man.” It once was displayed in either the Hopkins Hospital or the medical school—but no more.

Now it rests in a storage room at the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives in Mt. Washington, along with many other displaced tributes. After several decades—or more—memories fade. No one knows who put up the plaque. Rooms once dedicated to individuals get remodeled. Departments move. The plaques either are unceremoniously dispatched to the Chesney Archives—or, worse yet, disappear.

Archives director Nancy McCall says her office receives approximately 10 calls a year from the relatives of once-memorialized individuals (or genealogists representing a family), asking whatever happened to the plaque honoring a long-gone relation. “It’s a big problem,” she says. The callers are not happy if they are told that no one knows—or relieved to learn that the plaque is preserved in the archives.

With many departments and offices scheduled to move into the new clinical towers in 2011, Andrew Harrison, the Chesney’s material culture archivist, says he’s “expecting—and hoping—for a huge influx” of dislodged plaques in the next few years. “I’d much rather that they end up here than in the garbage dump,” he says.

Why some plaques remain in place while others are stored or trashed can be as mysterious as the subjects honored. An unidentified “In Memory of Harry White, 1899-1922” still is on a wall of the Park Building, while Hewetson rests in the archives.

One especially poignant, plaque remains where it was mounted more than a century ago in the hallway that now connects the Billings Building and the Wilmer Eye Institute. Whoever wrote its 97-word tribute made certain that those who spotted it—hidden in plain view—would know precisely who was memorialized and why.

  WHY SOME PLAQUES REMAIN IN PLACE WHILE OTHERS ARE STORED OR TRASHED CAN BE AS MYSTERIOUS AS THE SUBJECTS HONORED.

It honors Jesse William Lazear (1866-1900), an assistant resident at the Hopkins Hospital between 1895 and 1896. In 1900, Lazear was appointed to the U.S. Army’s four-man Yellow Fever Commission, a research group led by Walter Reed, another former Hopkins postgraduate student. The commission was sent to Cuba to determine the cause of yellow fever. Lazear contracted the disease by experimenting on himself. He was only 34 when he died, with a one-year-old son and a newborn daughter. Reed has an Army medical center named for him. Lazear has the plaque in Billings—and an undergraduate dormitory on the Homewood campus.

So the next time you wander through any Hopkins building and spot a plaque, take a second look. Its back story just might enrich your pride in the institution.


— NAG

 

 

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