Welcome to the Casey Wood Collections Project, a blog dedicated to history in the making. A hefty chunk of time has elapsed between the joint idea for this blog-site (January) and the appearance of my first post (today, 3 July), and I have learnt in the months between that to begin a blog about the practice of history is no easier than practicing history itself! Although the delay has been partly due the spare-time, part-time nature of the project, the long interlude has also been about a question much more familiar to historians and scholars embarking on new ventures: where and how to begin?
The first of these questions – where? – was undoubtedly the simpler of the two. I began thinking about the Casey Wood collections about a year ago when I volunteered at the Redpath Museum at McGill, photographing various implements of ritual, therapy and daily life to help update the catalog of the World Cultures Collection. Despite some experience volunteering in museums in the UK, I had never worked so directly with collections, and was immediately impressed by the stream of questions that flowed merely from tactile engagement with the objects – olas and styluses, water clocks and medicinal boxes, to name a few. The longer I spent at the Redpath, the more my curiosity turned towards the nature of the collection itself, its general variety, and the idea of its history as a whole. The question ‘where?’ became significant: what interests me so much about these objects is both the wide-range of their origins and their current preservation in a single place.
In light of this, the question ‘how?’, has become simpler. Although this is not intended as a ‘great man’ blog, or the forerunner to a ‘great man’ project, the interests and priorities of Casey Wood are nonetheless responsible, to a greater extent, for the scope and shape of the collections today. It is not just that they bear his name, but that collectively these objects are stamped with the residues of his identity, and therefore with wider elements of his history and culture. It follows that to know something about him is to know something about them – and vice-versa.
Biography is also a convenient and comparably simple place to start. From obituaries and other published sources I have mined some basic information about Casey Wood: that he was born in Wellington Ontario on 26 January 1856; that he trained in medicine both in North America and ‘the Continent’; that he ran a practice in Chicago between 1890 and 1917, and that between 1894 and 1914 he was editor of three successive journals: Annals of Ophthalmology, the Ophthalmic Record and the American Journal of Ophthalmology. He had interests in ophthalmology and ornithology, and was apparently fascinated by the intersections of the two. He died in California, on 26 January 1942, and his obituaries commemorate the passing of a unique and colorful figure in American medicine. They divide his years between those of professional practice in Chicago, and a retirement spent pursuing literary, anthropological, and bibliographic interests in Italy, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere. It was during this later period that that Casey Wood traveled extensively, gathering and bequeathing the large numbers of books and objects that now comprise the collections at McGill.
From individual objects to a museum collection to the collector’s biography. Already this pathway has determined further questions, and doubtless closed away others. My future blogspots in the coming weeks will be about establishing a bibliography to better map the historical territory and understand Casey Wood’s place within it. I have included in this first entry some photographs of the objects that originally spurred my interest, and I hope that an incidental virtue of this blog will be to make elements of these collections more widely visible. NW