Boston Strong

An interview with Joan IlacquaStrong Medicine Project Coordinator at Harvard University, by Julie Barzilay. 

There is no way to anticipate how the world will historically view the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing.  But there is one thing a historian can control, and that’s how much attention is paid to collecting, respecting, and organizing the records – electronic and physical – that continue to surface from that event and its aftermath. In conjunction with the “Our Marathon” project at Northeastern University, Ilacqua and a team of historians affiliated with the Center for the History of Medicine at Harvard’s Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine have launched an extensive project to document the medical community’s response to the bombing. The collection serves as a kind of living history, providing the medical community and the public with a forum for reflecting on and honoring the events of Marathon Monday 2013, while laying the foundation for a deeper understanding of the medical response that impressed the world that day. Below, Ilacqua answers questions about the origin, aims, and progress of the ongoing project.

Julie Barzilay: How did the idea for “Strong Medicine” arise?  Has Harvard’s Center for the History of Medicine at Harvard initiated similar projects in the past?

Joan Ilacqua: Strong Medicine was influenced by Northeastern University’s “Our Marathon” digital archive. Northeastern put out a call for collaborators last May, around the same time the Center for the History of Medicine was charged by the Countway Library’s Joint Library Committee to document the medical community’s response to the bombing. We decided that a digital archive based at the Center for the History of Medicine could focus on the medical response while contributing to the larger “Our Marathon” endeavor.

I came on to oversee Strong Medicine in January and we launched our submission website in February. Since then, we’ve recorded 17 oral histories, digitized a small fraction of the Brigham & Women’s Boston Marathon Bombing Ephemera Collection, and uploaded other stories and reflections donated to us, including documents like Powerpoint presentations and Facebook posts about last spring.

JB: What are some of the most interesting or meaningful contributions you’ve received?  Are these contributions all virtual, or are there physical items being archived as well?  How are you organizing them?

JI: I manage our oral history project, and I’ve interviewed six medical professionals so far, so I’m most intimately involved with that aspect of our project. It’s difficult to pick out what’s most interesting or most meaningful because each interview is so different. Some interviewees are very candid, some are emotional, and some are clinical and want to talk about why the healing response went so well last year and what could have gone better. I find the moments where interviewees are letting themselves get upset the most meaningful, but that’s because I’m a historian not a medical professional. I could certainly see others using our collection to want to know why the medical response was so overwhelmingly positive and how that response could change and improve over time.

While the oral histories, and stories submitted to us through the website are digital, our Strong Medicine collection is not entirely digital. Our Brigham & Women’s Ephemera collection is here, in the flesh, at the Center for the History of Medicine. Since there is identifying information on it, we only digitized a small portion for the Strong Medicine digital archive. We’ve also had donations of buttons, t-shirts, and wristbands.

What’s interesting about collecting materials from such a contemporary event is that most of it is digital to begin with. Facebook posts, photographs taken with cell phones, word documents, are all born-digital materials that we’re presenting digitally. These are preserved in our digital archive, and backed up in several locations. We also share Strong Medicine collections with “Our Marathon,” and materials will be available on both archives.

Many Center for the History of Medicine objects are available on our Omeka website, and all Strong Medicine items are kept together under the Strong Medicine collection. Each item is tagged thematically so that the visitor can choose to view items by type, for example oral history, social media, or by institution, like Tufts Medical Center, Massachusetts General Hospital, et cetera.

JB: Who do you hope will look at these pieces of history in the future?  

JI: I hope the general public is visiting our archive now to better understand all of the pieces and reasons why last year’s medical response was overwhelmingly positive. I hope medical professionals are visiting our archive, hearing what their colleagues have to say about their personal and unique actions and feelings and are considering donating their stories and other materials to us.

We believe these stories and other sources will be useful for medical education, historical research, analysis of medical response effectiveness and disaster management, but I want to emphasize that in this moment, the purpose of this archive is for everyone, both the general public and medical community, to better understand all of the pieces and reasons why last year’s medical response was so effective. Again, as a historian, I hope that we’re capturing the individual stories, feelings, thoughts, and emotions involved in that medical response so that future historians looking back on the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing will understand the myriad of emotions and experiences experienced by the Boston Medical Community at large.

This is an event that we’re still feeling the effects of, that we’re still healing from, and there is no way to anticipate how we’re going to historically view the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing. Creating and maintaining this collection lays the foundation for future historians to interpret this event.

JB: Have you received any feedback yet on the project from physicians, contributors, or other community members?  What have their reactions been?

JI: As we put our oral history interviews and transcripts online, our list of oral histories to conduct gets longer and longer. Medical professionals see that their story is important and that we genuinely want to hear it, and then agree to share with us. It’s been a very positive response.

JB: Why do you think it is important to archive these kinds of materials?  In what ways can this sort of “living history” teach us about the past, present or future?

JI: If we don’t collect these stories, who will? We don’t know now how or why these stories will be used in the future, but for now, collecting and presenting the individual medical response puts a human face to what’s described as a collective community. For example, there are over 16,000 workers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, each of those people had a different Marathon Monday experience, each of those people reacted and healed in a unique way. It’s important to understand how all of the parts of the whole worked together. Strong Medicine offers Bostonians and people around the world a glimpse into our remarkable medical community, helping them to remember, reflect, and heal.

Screen Shot 2014-04-18 at 9.08.30 AM

Contact Joan at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: