Moonshine and Biochemistry: Archives Month at the Medical Center Archives

October is a month of cooler temperatures, changing leaves, and Halloween candy, but also Archives Month! This annual celebration promotes archives, the materials they preserve, and people who work in them. All month events have been held across the country to celebrate. For example, on October 5th, archivists responded to questions on Twitter with the hashtag #AskAnArchivist. Upcoming on October 26th & 27th, the National Archives will host a live, two-day, virtual Genealogy Fair via webcast on Youtube. And this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of events!

On a state level, the Society of North Carolina Archivists sponsors Archives Month events every year. In fact, Gov. McCrory officially declared October to be “Archives Month” in the state of North Carolina and commended “its observance to all cititzens.” The theme for this year is "From Moonshine to Microbrews: North Carolina's Brewing History”. Following this theme, we decided to see if we could find some traces of brewing history in our archival collections. While most references to alcohol in our collections are in relation to alcoholism and its treatment, we did find one notable exception provided by Dr. Davison. 

Wilburt Davison, the first dean of the Medical School, provided many memorable accounts of life and work at Duke Medicine in his writings. He writes in detail about how stills were made and even how one Duke biochemist, Haywood Taylor, perfected his moonshine. In Davison of Duke: His Reminiscences, Dr. Davison recounts the following: 

“Prohibition, also, was the cause of many alcohol thefts at Duke by employees and students. The former usually sold it, and the latter drank a mixture of alcohol and grape juice called purple Jesus. They also made their own beer. Adding fluorescein to the ward alcohol soon stopped those thefts, but the unaltered pharmacy and pathology alcohol was in constant demand.” (p. 123-124)

Memorandum, December 9, 1933, W.A. Perlzweig

Dr. Davison’s reminiscences provide many amusing stories about this era at Duke Medicine that can be hard to trace or verify through the archival record. Nevertheless, they add interesting context and insight to many of the seemingly mundane administrative records that we preserve at the archive. 

To the right is a memorandum from December 9, 1933 written by W.A. Perlzweig, chair of the Department of Biochemistry. It is found in the Wilburt Cornell Davison Papers. His outline of regulations on blood chemistry work could easily be overlooked if not for Davison’s recollection: 

“The department of biochemistry was so bothered by requests for the testing of moonshine that Perly (W.A. Perlzweig) issued a mimeographed statement to the faculty that no more analyses would be made.” (p. 122)

Together this memorandum and reminiscence provide an interesting (and much fuller) story about Duke Medicine in the 1930s. This is just one example of the stories and information that an archive can provide. We hope that Archives Month can be a time for learning more about archives and celebrating the wonderful things that happen in them!

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