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Looking for one thing and finding another—that’s an old story. But when medical historian Jim T.H. Connor walked into Dr. Boris Rabkin’s office last February to pick up a used examining table, he ended up leaving with the whole office.
“I thought, Time capsule!” remembers Connor, assistant director for collections at the National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM). “Rabkin had been practicing for 50 years, and he really didn’t throw anything out….It was like the moment in Jurassic Park where they come over the hill and see the dinosaurs.”
Rabkin, a Silver Spring cardiologist and internist, who died on April 20 at the age of 84, didn’t just keep old test tubes and patients’ records. He kept dozens of stethoscopes—“hanging in closets like ties,” says Connor. There were three rooms of X-ray equipment, including a ’40s-vintage table with fluoroscope readouts and 4-inch-thick cables. Heaps of plastic eye models and a 1956 electrocardiograph with the manual. Thousands of unopened drug samples. And countless medical posters and ads and other physician’s ephemera, such as a brick of pamphlets titled “Facts About the New Time-Saving Enema.”
“It was stocked to the gills,” says Connor of the 10-room office at 1019 University Blvd. where Rabkin practiced from 1951 until 2002. “It was basically a rabbit warren of small closets and cupboards, and nearly every one was filled.”
It would take Connor and five of his NMHM colleagues nearly a week to finish culling through the treasures Rabkin had squirreled away, some of which had already been binned by Rabkin’s wife, Dorothy Rabkin, and son Charles, who are also doctors. “We got there just in time,” says Connor. “They had already put 10 trash cans’ worth of stuff at the curb and filled three to four inside.”
The 700-odd items the team took away—now called the Rabkin Collection—are being cataloged and folded into the NMHM’s holdings of an estimated million artifacts. The museum has also just put six of Rabkin’s things on display in the recent-acquisitions area of its main exhibition space at 6900 Georgia Ave. NW, on the campus of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
As Connor ogles the exhibit’s representative Rabkin stethoscope one day in mid-April, Alan J. Hawk, the museum’s manager of historical collections, opens the case and, wearing a latex glove, reaches in to pick up a box of anti-hypertensive drugs that he says came out in 2000. “I think it’s still good—whoops, no, it’s expired,” says Hawk, checking the label.
“These things are museum-quality, museum standards,” says Connor. “As [Rabkin] replaced objects, he would keep the old ones. It was like an archaeological dig, the wearing off of different time periods of medical practice. And the way the ads from the ’50s and ’60s were constructed, they can relay attitudes about race, class, gender, and so on that are very valuable.”
But only to historians, he adds: The vast bulk of the Rabkin Collection has little monetary value, even to collectors.
“Part of the attraction of this place—it wasn’t so peculiar as it was normal,” Connor says. “The peculiar thing was that everything was there.”
Then Connor smiles. “It’s a collection by default,” he adds. “From our point of view, it’s a collection. From his, it was a way of life.”
During an interview four days before he died, Boris Rabkin was a man in constant pain. Suffering from pulmonary hypertension and multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow, Rabkin was also undergoing rehabilitation at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington in Rockville for a fractured kneecap he suffered in a fall during a March medical conference. His eyes opened no more than a hair’s width, and his voice was a whispered rush as he struggled to explain his accidental collection.
“As you look back, it was the wrong thing to do,” said Rabkin about his habit. “It started with small rooms and just kept going into the whole building. It was easier to keep it than throw it out.”
Rabkin, a Brooklyn native, came to D.C. in 1939 to attend George Washington University Medical School, where he met Dorothy Sislen “over the anatomy table,” as she puts it. They graduated together in February 1943 and married in March of the next year, just before Boris went into the Army and Dorothy joined the D.C. Department of Health, where she would work as a pediatrician for her entire career. The couple would have six children, five of whom would become physicians.
It was in the ’40s, Boris said, that he started saving medical journals as well as his notes on the 50 or so medical conferences he attended annually. “Of course, every 10 years everything turned around and everything I had was obsolete, and there wasn’t any point in keeping it,” he said. “But I did.”
And when he and Dorothy bought a two-story, four-apartment building on University Boulevard and converted its large first floor into a medical office, the additional room just encouraged his accumulations. “There really was a lot of space for one doctor,” says Dorothy, a native Washingtonian who saw a few patients there at night over the years. “So he just started filling it.”
A practice of up to 30 patients daily generates mountains of detritus, and Boris Rabkin wasn’t throwing away a lot of it. In fact, he continued to buy and build cabinets to handle the overflow. Even a back-porch lab addition became a storage area for the junk.
“The clutter—oh! It was unbelievable! Unbelievable!” says Mercedes Keene, who was Rabkin’s office manager for 25 years, until 2002. “When he got a new medication sample in, he would push the old to the back of the drawer,” notes Dorothy, who is now 82 and mostly confined to the couple’s Silver Spring home with arthritis and osteoporosis. “Then, the back of the drawer gives out after a while. That’s when things go into the closet.”
And Rabkin—who took and developed his own X-rays and did his own lab work into the ’70s, well after most doctors had farmed out those tasks—added to the mess by clinging to his old equipment. The X-ray machines and half-dozen examination tables eventually became staging areas for mounds of patient charts. Keene says Rabkin had a hard time parting with even broken items.
“I would say about a stopwatch: ‘This doesn’t work—can we buy another?’” remembers Keene. “And he would go into the back and bring out another one, and I would tell him: ‘This is the old one that you’re just bringing out again!’”
“The stethoscopes—I guess I was just too lazy to throw them away,” said Rabkin. “And [the medical-supply companies] kept on giving them to me.”
Dorothy says she knew better than to challenge Boris about the state of the office. But home was a different matter, she adds, a pitched battle over both partners’ ever-mounting jumble. “He’d keep anything that came in the door,” she says, adding that Boris even started stacking back issues of medical journals in their children’s bedrooms after the last had left for college in the ’70s. “His idea of clutter was anything I owned. He was disturbed by my own clutter.”
“She’s got all these packages!” was Boris’ take on the matter. “I tried to go through them, but she wouldn’t let anything out of the house. She wouldn’t discard a single piece of newspaper! We had constant disputes about it. She said: ‘I’ll throw out yours if you throw out mine.’ But I had nothing to throw out! Between the two of us, we accumulated an unbelievable amount of trash.”
Suddenly, Rabkin reared up from behind the portable patient’s table on which he was resting his elbows. “Yes, I regret it,” he said of his accidental collection. “I’ve never used it. You can’t get rid of it. It’s—what do they call those people? Obsessive. People who collect anything from thimbles to newspapers.”
“I don’t have any hope for the collection,” he added, distraught. “I never anticipated anything from it. I was just going to turn the key and walk away.”
Michael Rhode, chief archivist of the NMHM’s Otis Historical Archives, sits in his office in mid-April, amid about a dozen cardboard boxes containing Rabkin’s most notable ephemera. “It can be a little depressing, because you’re usually closing out your life when you call an archivist,” Rhode says, looking at a ream of Medicare/Medicaid requisition forms that Rabkin saved. “These are stunningly boring now but probably will end up in an exhibition 100 years from now on how HMOs worked.”
And after the museum’s recent-acquisition exhibit turns over, 2104 might be the first chance for the public to see what Rabkin spent all those years accumulating. The irony is that, after its cataloging, the Rabkin Collection will become much like what was in Rabkin’s drawers and cupboards—scattered and forgotten in the museum’s metal cabinets and archival bookshelves, or buried in the deep freeze of its Gaithersburg warehouse.
“I don’t think in the foreseeable future we’ll be putting together an exhibition [based on the collection],” says Connor. “It can be reconstructed electronically—reconstructed in theory. A researcher could even do a cross-section slide sample of his practice”—tranquilizers or baby scales through the decades, presumably.
“We’ve tried to preserve this person’s contribution to medicine,” Connor says. “And we try to get the stories that go with them.”
But museum curators failed to follow through on their desire to videotape an interview with Rabkin before he died—an omission that pains his son Charles, a 46-year-old senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health. “That would have been a nice addition to the collection,” he says.
Both Charles and Dorothy, though, are far more sanguine than Boris was about the museum’s efforts. “I think there was some reason for keeping all this, and that somebody will enjoy looking at it,” Dorothy says. “Otherwise, you can’t imagine why you’d keep all this stuff.”
But the museum isn’t going to keep it all. “We’re offering our multiple copies to the Smithsonian or other colleagues,” Rhode says, holding up the enema pamphlets as an example. “We only need one of each.” CP