Uncorking the past

Treasures and tales from the old infirmaries.

Uncorking the past
Convalesce: The Adobe Infirmary in 1913, before Donohoe was built. Archives of SCU
Treasures and tales from the old infirmaries
Where sickness meets its match: A 1925 article announces the new infirmary (top) and Rose Donohoe dedicates the building (bottom).

Last spring, Santa Clara alumni received a newly renovated place to call home in the Donohoe Alumni House. With the house opening its doors on a new chapter, as manager of SCU’s Archaeological Research Lab, I thought this seemed a fine opportunity to uncork some bottles from its past. After all, the building came into this world 85 years ago with a very different purpose: as the University Infirmary.

Constructed in 1925 thanks to a gift by Catherine Donohoe, the infirmary was, as the University catalog then described it, “a complete small hospital, with private rooms and ward, diet kitchen, dispensary, operating room, chapel and offices.” The impetus for building it was the global influenza epidemic of 1918-19, which, on the Santa Clara campus, killed two students and sickened dozens more. (The new infirmary replaced one that had been located, since 1870, in the second story of the Adobe Lodge.)

The Donohoe Infirmary ably served the health-related needs of the campus until 1975, when Cowell Center was constructed to play that role. But the soil behind the building holds onto its history. In 1995, utility work near Donohoe yielded an archaeological deposit containing large numbers of pharmaceutical containers, including vials and ampoules dating from the 1930s to the early 1960s.

Time in a bottle: A bottle and syringe unearthed near Donohoe. Drugs dispensed—legally—included opium, heroin, and cocaine.

Archaeology is not merely about objects in the ground. It is the underground component of history, a complement to written and oral history. So what was in the bottles? Documents from the University Archives reveal that the infirmaries in Adobe and Donohoe dispensed a plethora of potent (and now illegal) drugs to students and Jesuits to bring relief from headaches, allergies, colds, diarrhea, rashes, sore throats and feet, and more serious illnesses. Through the 1930s, prior to when they were outlawed, the drugs dispensed included opium (used as an analgesic until the development of morphine), heroin (originally sold as a cough treatment; “Heroin” was a Bayer trademark until World War I), cocaine (in the United States, cocaine was sold over the counter until 1914 and was widely used in tonics, toothache cures, patent medicines, and chocolate cocaine tablets), and codeine (an effective treatment for “intestinal disturbances”). During this era, the medical community viewed these drugs as medicines; these treatments were commonly dispensed throughout the country.

Some vials unearthed near Donohoe were snap-off containers for vaccines that were administered in the 1950s. In those days, shots were administered against allergies, tetanus, typhus, and other ailments. For SCU archaeologists of the future, there will be a time capsule from 2010 waiting for them—but there likely won’t be the same kinds of finds as we had; biohazard disposal for containers of vaccine is a little more strict these days.

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