NLM Helps Showcase the Continuing Fight against Sickle Cell Disease

In 1910, Chicago physician James B. Herrick made medical history when he published a scientific paper describing the case of an anemic patient who suffered from a blood disorder characterized by oddly elongated, sickle-shaped red-blood cells. The disorder was later termed sickle cell anemia, after the unusual shape of the blood cells. Herrick’s paper was the first documented description of the disease in Western medical literature.

A hereditary blood disorder, sickle cell disease is most common in people whose families originate in Africa, South or Central America, Caribbean islands, Mediterranean countries, India and Saudi Arabia. In the United States, sickle cell anemia, a type of sickle cell disease, affects some 70,000 to 100,000 people, mainly African Americans. Those who have the disease suffer lifelong anemia and periodic crises of severe pain.

Herrick Symposium Exhibition PosterAn exhibition highlighting Herrick’s pioneering work will be on display February 8-11, 2011 in the History of Medicine Division Reading Room at the National Library of Medicine. The exhibition was first shown in November 2010 during a two-day symposium marking the 100th anniversary of the publication of Herrick’s groundbreaking paper. The National Library of Medicine (NLM) and seven other institutes and centers of the National Institutes of Health convened the James B. Herrick Symposium – Sickle Cell Disease Care and Research: Past, Present, and Future. As part of the event, the NLM, with support from the National Heart Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), developed a concurrent, commemorative display.

“The symposium was a special opportunity to showcase some of the original historic documents on which Dr. Herrick’s article was based,” said HMD Rare Book Librarian Dever Powell, who curated the display. Powell and Dr. Jeffrey S. Reznick, HMD’s Deputy Chief, represented the NLM on the scientific planning committee that organized the Herrick Symposium and the accompanying display.

Powell said he was encouraged especially by Dr. W. Keith Hoots, Director of the NHLBI’s Division of Blood Diseases and Resources and chairman of the scientific planning committee. “During the first meetings [of the scientific planning committee] at the beginning of the year, Keith urged all of us to think big,” Powell recalled. “And we all did.”

For the display, Powell visited the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago Library, which holds the James. B. Herrick Papers, and secured the loan of  documents relating to the 1910 article, including blood examination reports.

He also visited the Rush University Medical Center Archives, which provided period photographs of Herrick, and his intern, Dr. Ernest E. Irons, who did much of the work with the patient, Walter Clement Noel; Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Collection; the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America headquarters in Baltimore; and the United States Postal Service, which lent to the NLM for the display the original artwork of the 2004 Sickle Cell Disease Awareness Stamp by well-known artist and illustrator James Gurney.

“I wanted original materials on display for this special occasion.”  Powell said. He also located and contacted the grandchildren of Dr. Herrick and Dr. Irons. It was Dr. Herrick’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Gilbert, who put Powell in touch with the University of Michigan for the loan of Herrick’s 1882 undergraduate photo album. The scientific planning committee invited the grandchildren to the Symposium as special guests. Dr. Herrick’s grandson, James Gilbert, attended, as did Nancy Irons, Dr. Irons’ granddaughter. For the February reinstallation of the display, Mr. Gilbert lent to the NLM three photographs of Dr. Herrick in the 1880s.

Portrait of Dr. Charles F. WhittenThe display also highlighted recent sickle cell-related acquisitions made by the NLM in 2010, including an autographed copy of Herrick’s 1949 memoirs. The library also announced the acquisition of the papers of the late Dr. Charles F. Whitten, co-founder of the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America and a renowned trailblazer in the disease.  Featured at the end of the display was a portrait of Dr. Whitten, lent to the NLM by his daughter Dr. Wanda Whitten-Shurney. “It was important to me for the display to conclude with Dr. Whitten, one of the greats in sickle cell disease, and also with the announcement of the acquisition of his papers by the NLM,” Powell noted. “Not many institutions hold collections of sickle cell-related papers, and the event was therefore a great opportunity to demonstrate to this particular audience the important role libraries play in preserving, securing, and describing all these stories for future generations.”

The November 16th opening reception was funded by the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH).  The event drew more than 150 visitors. During the reception, NLM staff members were also on hand to describe and demonstrate various NLM programs, including Profiles in Science, conservation, historical images and archives, and rare books.  Both James Gilbert and Nancy Irons were among the visitors to the HMD reading room. They were especially moved to see their grandfathers’ original manuscripts.

More than 30 of the world’s top experts in sickle cell disease presented at the landmark symposium, which, to accommodate the large crowds, was held in auditoriums on the NIH campus. Joining these experts in examining the disease’s history, impact and outlook was an audience of researchers, health care providers, advocacy groups, patients, academics, and members of the public.

Among the featured presenters were NIH Director Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) Director Griffin P. Rodgers, MD; and NHLBI Acting Director Susan B. Shurin, MD

Sir David Weatherall, winner of the 2010 Lasker-Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Research, gave the keynote address at the symposium dinner. He is a pioneer in genetic diseases of the blood, especially thalasemmia, which affects millions of children worldwide.

In addition to the NLM, symposium sponsors included:

  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)
  • National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI )
  • Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)
  • National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK)
  • National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)
  • Office of Rare Diseases Research (ORDR)
  • National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NCMHD)

“It was an honor and a privilege for the History of Medicine Division to display the materials relating to Dr. Herrick’s work,” commented Reznick. “It was a true collaborative effort inside NLM and beyond, all for the benefit of contemporary medicine, science, and public health. In realizing this accomplishment, we certainly appreciate the generous support of our colleagues in the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health.”

By Thomas Conuel, NLM in Focus Writer

Photo Captions: Top Photo, entrance to Herrick exhibition. Bottom photo, portrait of Dr. Charles F. Whitten, loan courtesy of Wanda Whitten-Shurney, MD. Photos by E. Déshaun Williams