The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Tragedy, Towers, and Romance at the Smithsonian
On this Valentine’s Day, you might wonder if Cupid has ever shot any arrows around the Institution. The Smithsonian has been the site of many romances and even some tragedies, so today I’ll tell a story which combines both. In the process of recording his oral history interviews, Dr. T. Dale Stewart, a physical anthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History, told me about one of the worst days in 74 years working at the Smithsonian. Dr. Stewart, who received a M.D. degree from The Johns Hopkins University, never practiced medicine. Despite that lack of experience, and like his predecessor Aleš Hrdlička, Stewart was often called upon to serve as the Institution’s doctor in medical emergencies. One day in 1937, he received an urgent call to come to the Smithsonian Castle to care for an employee who had fallen through a trap door in the Castle Flag Tower and was seriously injured. The employee was Florence E. Meier (1902-1978), a botanist with the Radiation Biology Laboratory (RBL), part of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO). Dr. Meier had received her B.A. from Wellesley College and the Ph.D. from the University of Geneva in Switzerland. You might wonder why a botanist would work for an observatory—Meier was one of a group of scientists studying the effects of sunlight on plants. The SAO’s director, Charles Greeley Abbot, was quite intrigued by the effects of solar radiation on the earth. RBL staff members used rooms in the tower and basement of the Castle for their research. In the early days, scientists traveled between floors of the tower by climbing up and down a ladder through a trap door, often carrying trays of specimens or scientific equipment. In 1929, a very small elevator was installed in the tower to make the trip safer and easier. But in 1937, while showing some visitors around the Castle, Dr. Meier demonstrated how staff used to travel from floor to floor via the ladder and trap door. As they left, the visitors took the elevator down, but it was too small to accommodate Dr. Meier as well. She waved goodbye to them as the elevator door closed, stepped backwards, forgetting the trap door was open, and fell through to the floor below, breaking her back. Dr. Stewart ran to assist, dreading what he would find. In his oral history, he describes in detail the harrowing process of lifting her into a wheelchair so they could get her into the tiny elevator and down to the waiting ambulance, since they did not have a stretcher. Lacking actual medical practice experience, he felt poorly prepared to deal with the situation. He feared that moving her might damage her spinal column and leave her permanently paralyzed. But after some time and delicate maneuvering, they managed to get her down the elevator and into the waiting ambulance without further injury. Dr. Meier was taken to Garfield Memorial Hospital and cared for by Dr. William Wiley Chase, the head of the Surgery Department who was well-known to Dr. Stewart. Indeed, Dr. Chase provided Dr. Meier with such loving care during her recovery that she was soon Dr. Florence Meier Chase—her tragic day in the Smithsonian tower ending in true romance!