The National Library of Medicine (NLM) has acquired the papers of sisters Selma DeBakey (1915-2013) and Lois DeBakey, PhD (1920-2016), pioneers in biomedical communications who used humor as one of their signature teaching techniques. These remarkable women also wrote extensively about the responsibilities of authors, editors, and reviewers and on topics such as literary ethics and etiquette.
The DeBakey sisters were born and raised in Lake Charles, Louisiana, along with their older brother, Michael, who would become a leading cardiac surgeon. Their parents actively fostered their education and encouraged them to attend college.
Selma went to work as an editor at the Alton Ochsner Foundation, then became director of medical communications at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation. Lois earned a PhD in literature and linguistics from Tulane University and then joined the English department at Tulane.
For many years, the sisters helped their brother revise and abstract his medical publication drafts. Concerned that many of his fellow physicians did not write clearly, Michael (a meticulous writer himself) urged his sisters to draft guidelines and develop courses on concise medical communication.
In 1962, Selma and Lois began teaching the first curriculum-approved communications course ever offered at a medical school, at Tulane. They moved to Baylor College of Medicine in 1968, serving as professors of scientific communications for the next 40 years.
During their distinguished careers, the DeBakey sisters taught communications courses all over the world and served as editors and consultants to many medical journals and publications, such as the American Heritage Dictionary and Encyclopedia Britannica. Their courses and publications showed scientists and physicians how to write well-organized, coherent prose, free of the jargon and awkward grammar that often-characterized medical writing.
As a regent and consultant to NLM, Lois advocated for the use of acid-free, permanent paper within the medical publishing industry to preserve medical records for future generations. She also supported NLM in planning its sesquicentennial in 1986 and helped develop a public communications program to inform the U.S. and the world about NLM’s collections and resources.
The papers of Selma and Lois DeBakey encompass more than 800 boxes of materials, including correspondence, course materials, and presentations along with their awards and commendations. The collection also includes cartoons used for their courses as well as audiovisual materials such as Lois’s 1981 video lecture, “Doctor, are you speaking in tongues?,” now available through the NLM Digital Collections. In this video, she argues that “an intelligent, educated reader should understand the essence of a well-written article no matter how specialized or technical the subject may be.”
Rich with such observations and wisdom about biomedical communication and related subjects, the papers of Selma and Lois DeBakey join a collection of their brother Michael’s papers held by NLM. Together, these papers constitute a vast public resource for researchers.
Thanks to a gift from the Michael E. DeBakey Medical Foundation, NLM will be able to support public access to and preservation of the papers of Selma DeBakey and Lois DeBakey. The work will include processing and cataloging the materials, developing a detailed research guide, and curating and digitizing items for the NLM Digital Collections. Once completed, the collection will be preserved by NLM and available onsite for generations of researchers.
By Susan L. Speaker, PhD, historian in the NLM History of Medicine Division, and Jeffrey S. Reznick, PhD, chief of the NLM History of Medicine Division.
Selma and Lois DeBakey commissioned Dick Putney of the Houston Post to draw humorous cartoons about the importance of clear and concise medical communication. Examples of these cartoons appear in Lois’s 1981 video lecture, “Doctor, are you speaking in tongues?” available through NLM Digital Collections.