Harvard Medical School

Harvard Medical School

Joan Ilacqua. Image: Stephanie Krauss

In October 2018, Joan Ilacqua became the first archivist for diversity and inclusion at the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine’s Center for the History of Medicine, a move that underscores the library’s overall commitment to actively expand the scope of its archives and include groups historically underrepresented in medicine. As an outgrowth of the center’s successful program for collecting the records of leading women in medicine, the expanded Archives for Diversity and Inclusion will house records, publications and other materials to include individuals who self-identify as Black and African-American, Latinx, Asian, Native American or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, LGBTQ or a person with a disability.

Amid the Countway’s collection of rare leather-bound medical texts, some dating to the 11th century, MyHMS sat down with Ilacqua to discuss her role and her plans for the center’s newest initiative.

What was your first job at HMS?

I joined HMS five years ago as an oral history project coordinator for Strong Medicine, covering the Boston Marathon bombing. Once we wrapped on that project, I started doing oral histories for the Archives for Women in Medicine (AWM), a program designed to ensure that women are represented in our archival collections.

First class of women admitted to Harvard Medical School, 1945
First class of women admitted to Harvard Medical School, 1945

How did the diversity and inclusion program come to be?

As the AWM program evolved, we worked with Joan Reede, HMS dean for diversity and community partnership, and the Office for Diversity Inclusion and Community Partnership as well as the School’s Joint Committee on the Status of Women, LGBT Advisory Committee and Office for Faculty Affairs to identify gaps in the library’s collections and address any disparities concerning who is represented in the archives. We’re making history in the Longwood Medical Area. If you don’t have original records, you can’t write an accurate history. And if the only original records you have are of certain people, only a certain story is what gets told over time.

Which groups fit into the expanded scope of the program?

Women are part of it, of course, along with those who self-identify as underrepresented minorities (URM). That’s not saying there weren’t individuals from these populations already in the collection; there are some, but I’m going to work to make sure we reach out to people who fall into these categories so that we can include the work they do and the contributions they’ve made to HMS.

How would you describe what you do?

I’m a public historian. I believe that history is for everyone and should represent everyone. It’s my job to help make sure that everyone is represented, that their stories are saved in perpetuity. I do that through oral history interviews and by acquiring records that represent the behind-the-scenes work that goes into medical and scientific innovation. I think there’s a preconceived notion about what this entails, that it’s dusty historians working with old papers. It’s not; we work with people. We’re here to help with the process of preserving legacies. It’s really quite a joy to do this work.

Tell us a little more about Center for the History of Medicine.

The center maintains a vast collection of rare books, artifacts and archives that span centuries, and we’re actively bringing in new records and materials to add to our collections, including research records and electronic data as well as the institutional records of Harvard’s medical, dental and public health schools. We exist as a place where people can engage with history and figure out what it means to them today and to the future of medicine and science. It’s difficult to distill what the center means because it’s multifaceted.

What do you enjoy most about what you do?

We work in a community of people who are, in a real sense, changing the future. I talk with amazing people who might not have been recognized for all they have contributed to the Longwood schools. Just last week, I talked with someone who does research on optic nerves, with a group of neuroscientists and with Nancy Oriol, HMS faculty associate dean for community engagement in medical education, who created the Family Van, the first mobile community medicine van in the country. I have the opportunity to help them tell their stories.

Members of the class of 1881 of the Harvard Dental School
Members of the class of 1881 of the Harvard Dental School

What are you are working on now?

I’m creating a committee to help me do strategic planning and more outreach to full professors and other Harvard-affiliated professionals who self-identify as URM.

I’m gathering oral histories from faculty and alumni about their experiences as students, and how they think HMS has changed over time in regard to diversity and inclusion.

We’re researching some of our firsts here. We have a pretty good understanding of who the first Black students at HMS were, but we don’t know about other groups.

I’m also planning a series of exhibits and oral histories to share the archives and the experiences of URM faculty with the community.

We’re surrounded by books in this room. Have you read any good books lately?

I would say the book that I think about the most is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. That’s totally an example of a woman whose story wasn’t told until somebody found it and shared it. There are so many ethical implications and issues in that story that it really needed to be told. Now we all know it. That’s amazing.

Joan Ilacqua serves on Harvard Medical School’s Equity and Social Justice Committee, LGBT Advisory Committee and Joint Committee on the Status of Women. She received the staff 2018 Dean’s Community Service Award for her volunteer work with The History Project: Documenting LGBTQ Boston, a volunteer-driven community of LGBTQ archives. This year, Joan was honored as a recipient of the Sharon P. Clayborne Staff Diversity Award, established to recognize HMS/HSDM staff members who have made significant advances in moving HMS/HSDM toward being a diverse and inclusive community.


Learn more about the Archives for Diversity and Inclusion and the collections at the Center for the History of Medicine at the Countway Library.

Historic images courtesy of the Center of the History of Medicine at the Countway Library of Medicine