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Marble Special Collections Library Dedicated at Joslin

Friday, September 28, 2012

Nested among the administrative offices on the fourth floor of the Joslin Diabetes Center (the Joslin) is an extraordinary room, one that houses the institutional memory, and perhaps a bit of the soul, of the Center and its founder, Elliott P. Joslin, M.D. 

On September 27, the Joslin celebrated the rededication of the Alexander Marble Special Collections Library (MSCL), which houses the books, collected papers, memorabilia and furniture of Dr. Joslin, Dr. Marble (Dr. Joslin’s editor and protégé) and the original Joslin team. It has grown over the years as volumes from members of the Joslin staff were added.   

The room is a replica of Dr. Joslin’s original working office at 81 Bay State Road in Boston, which he occupied from 1905 to 1955. In 1956 the current Joslin Diabetes Center opened at 1 Joslin Place and the library came with it. 

The current room, a spacious rectangle lined in glass cabinets, contains Dr. Joslin’s typewriter, dining room table, desk and the famous “black book” ledgers he kept on his early patients. In addition, the room holds a short biography of Dr. Joslin’s career by Donald M. Barnett, M.D., Joslin historian, and a memoir by Anna Holt, Dr. Joslin’s personal secretary, known respectively as the Blue and Red books.  Also in the room is an index to the scientific papers published by Joslin researchers and physicians in the first 100 years of the institution’s history, compiled and edited by Ronald Kahn, M.D., co-director of the Section on integrative physiology and metabolism research, past president of the Joslin, and the current Chief Academic Officer of the institution.

The library also holds a copy of all 14 editions of Dr. Joslin’s textbook, The Treatment of Diabetes Mellitus, which has been updated by Joslin faculty for the last several decades, as well as all 14 editions of Dr. Joslin’s Diabetic Manual—for the Doctor and Patient, which was the first diabetes patient handbook and is still in print and use today.

The library has existed for many years but its contents were never in a form as accessible to researchers and educators as they are now. 

Rachel Joslin Whitehouse, great-granddaughter of Dr. Joslin, who worked with
Dr. Barnett on preserving and archiving its contents, calls the library “an open window on the past for scholars.”  

In 1990, Joslin President Kenneth Quickel, MD appointed Dr. Barnett chairman of the Joslin Historical Commission and entrusted the library and its contents to his care.     

Volunteering their time for the past three years, Dr. Barnett and Ms. Whitehouse have organized the library’s holdings into five collections:  the library books, Dr. Joslin’s collected papers, the collected papers of the early days of the Joslin clinic, photographs and artifacts.  The entire archived collection surpasses 10,000 individual items. 

In pursing the formidable archiving task, Dr. Barnett and Ms. Whitehouse “wanted to make sure that the Joslin’s papers would not remain an untouched relic, but rather be employed as a living educational tool that scholars and educators could use to improve patient care,” says Ms. Whitehouse. 

Dr. Joslin—most often referred to as “EPJ”—was America’s pioneer physician-investigator in diabetes. Everyone who works in the diabetes field at some point learns about EPJ. He took an interest in a little known disease and forged a defining vision as to how to treat it.

While at Harvard Medical School Dr. Joslin was assigned a patient with diabetes and his mother also developed the disease.    At the time, diabetes was obscure and there was little treatment available, but he was hooked.   He saw his first patient in 1898 and his practice grew enormously after insulin was discovered.   Challenged by the outcomes of these patients, he began a listing of his patients in large accounting books, complete with all the facts, progress and outcomes.   These “black books” became the beginning of the first diabetes registry in the world.

The Joslin practice reflected Dr. Joslin’s early writings and his theory of strict control of blood glucose, frequent testing and daily exercise to prevent diabetes complications. One distinctive characteristic of his approach involves his belief in the “troika,” the Russian word meaning threesome. Dr. Joslin created a three-horse chariot to reflect his philosophy of living with diabetes—the three-horse motif symbolized insulin, diet and exercise, which are needed to achieve “victory” over diabetes.   The troika is still used today in the Joslin’s care of people with diabetes.

Dr. Donna Younger, long-term staff physician, recalls  “when I came we met as a group in an early library around the same dining room table with Dr. Joslin present at times to discuss patients or changes in therapy...   The Joslin was all about the patients’ needs then as it is today. 

“Once a month we would have a fellow in psychiatry from the Beth Israel Hospital come over to discuss behavioral issues caused by diabetes and plan how we could help our patients,” says Dr. Younger. “This model continues today—instead of a once-a-month meeting, we now have an entire behavioral health unit.” 

The archival team has added new displays to the room including one commemorating the 90th anniversary of the first administration of commercial insulin in America in 1922 and a permanent exhibit to the 50-Year Medalist Program. The Medalist Program at the Joslin recognizes those with diabetes who have been insulin-dependent for 25, 50, or 75 years. Dr. Joslin first began awarding medals to people with diabetes in 1931. In 1970, the Joslin expanded the program and began awarding a 50-year bronze medal. The Joslin presented the first 75-year medal in 1996.

The archives will soon be accessible, upon appointment, to physicians, educators and scholars and continues to be a prominent feature of the Joslin tours.

Page last updated: November 07, 2019