Discovering family history at Savitt Medical Library

Medical bag belongs to faculty member's great-grandfather

Megan Swank reviews the contents of her great-grandfather's medical bag in the History of Medicine room. Photo by James Rutter.

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8/1/2017 | By: James Rutter |

When a student told Megan Swank, Au.D., CCC-A, about the medicine bag baring her last name on display outside Savitt Medical Library, she doubted there was any connection to her. Little did she know that this medicine bag actually belonged her great-grandfather.

"I've been here for three years as an instructor and this was the first time I'd heard about it," Swank said. "Initially I thought there was no way it was connected to me, but then I went over and when I saw the full name on the bag, James L. Swank, I realized it was my great-grandfather's; it was a very emotional moment."

Swank had forgotten that her great-grandfather, James Levy Swank, M.D., had practiced medicine as a general physician in Las Vegas before his death in 1961.

"I thought it was pretty amazing, because I don't know much about him. He died before I was born," said Swank.

Initially, little was known about the bag's history, other than it was donated to the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine's History of Medicine program in 1989 by a Dr. Joseph George. The bag was taken out of its display case for the first time in years for this photo. Upon receiving the bag, Swank opened it, discovering a letter and blood pressure cuff inside, both of which were previously unknown to current curators of Savitt Library's History of Medicine collection.

"It's really interesting holding and touching something that belonged to someone related to you, who died before you were born. When I opened it and discovered there was more, I had goose bumps running up my arms," Swank said.

The letter inside the bag, written by a Mrs. Dorothy George to the former director and medical librarian of the Savitt Medical Library, revealed that the blood pressure cuff inside the bag had been given to Swank's great-grandfather, by his father-who was also a physician-and that the bag was used regularly during James' time practicing medicine in Las Vegas, after he'd moved there during World War II. The letter also indicated that Drs. Swank and George were friends who had offices close to one another in Las Vegas.

Perhaps the biggest revelation was that the bag and blood pressure cuff inside had been part of a much larger collection of Swank's great-grandfather's medical equipment, and that the rest of the collection's location has been a mystery for decades.

"It was interesting to read that there was a lot more to the collection," Swank said. "That being said, it was really nice to know that it was well taken care of by one of his friends and someone who knew it was an important part of Nevada's medical history."

The experience of learning about, and getting to physically explore her great-grandfather's medicine bag left Swank filled with emotion and an experience she had never expected.
Holding back tears, she said: "I really feel like I got to know a little bit about him. All I really knew was that he was a physician and that he lived in Las Vegas. And now, with all of this, it's almost like I got to meet a little part of him."

James Levy Swank's medicine bag remains on display in the glass wall case in front of the Savitt Medical library in the Pennington Medical Education building.

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