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ALUMNI Spotlight

Waring Library director tends to historical treasures

Jan. 30, 2013
By Allyson Bird
Office of Development and Alumni Affairs

Tucked away off the MUSC Horseshoe and cloaked in Spanish moss, the Waring Historical Library preserves some of most fascinating chapters of South Caroilna’s medical history in the yellowed pages lining its shelves.

The Medical Society of South Carolina began its library in 1791 with a mere 14 books. The collection grew to hundreds by the Civil War, before Union soldiers stole the texts during their occupation of the city.

One doctor, Eli Geddings, took on the task of putting the library back together. He recovered as many as 900 books that had been scattered across the country, according to Waring Library Director Dr. Curtis Worthington, a 1952 graduate of the Medical College of South Carolina. Dr. Worthington likes to pause before adding with a knowing smile, “Nobody knows how.”

Dr. Curtis Worthington

Dr. Geddings is one of Dr. Worthington’s favorite characters in the storied history of this library, where long-retired medical devices decorate the nooks and crannies, and where the oldest text – a book on surgery – dates to 1531. People who cherish this place consider Dr. Worthington a part of its fabric.

Now 87 years old and retired for more than two decades, Dr. Worthington still faithfully works three days a week at a computer nestled between bookshelves in the back of the library. In his 30 years as director of the Waring Library, Dr. Worthington has become as much a fixture here as the as leather-bound pharmacy logs from the 19th-century or the rotating historical exhibits encased in glass.

He took on the library as a full-time job in 1982 and continued despite his “retirement” in 1991. Dr. Worthington envisioned the library as not only a place for historians but as somewhere current students could go to escape the haste and to understand their own history.

“For students, medicine is so demanding and stressful, with all the technical innovations,” he said. “You lose touch with the world around you, and you also lose touch with how you came to be.”

Dr. Worthington worked as a professor for decades and said he most enjoyed giving lectures on the history of medicine. In overseeing the Waring Library, he found a way to live its message each day.

Dr. Worthington started a monthly Student Medical History Club with an informal health science lecture and a box lunch provided for the audience.  An annual research contest named in his honor encourages undergraduate college students to compete for a $1,500 cash prize for the best paper on the history of the health sciences.

Dr. Worthington has worked to ensure that the Waring Library, despite its curiosities, remains relevant to modern medical education.

“We are not a dead place where you dump old books,” Dr. Worthington said. “We are a dynamic research library.”

But old books initially attracted Dr. Worthington and other faculty members. In 1977 four MUSC physicians met in the office of Dr. Layton McCurdy, Professor and Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, to form the Waring Library Society, a group named in honor of librarian Dr. Joseph Waring, who tended to the collection from 1949 until his death later that year.

“Dr. Waring made fun of it,” Dr. McCurdy remembered. “He said, ‘Don’t tell my friends this got started in a psychiatry office.’”

The men set a goal for their group and for the library itself: To keep it vibrant.

“The society wanted the library to be bigger than a building tucked around the corner that few people knew about,” Dr. McCurdy said. “It was a place of scholarly refuge. It still is.”

After Dr. Waring’s death, the group began each of its business meetings with a glass of his favorite drink, Harveys Shooting Sherry. When the sweet, dark wine went off the market several years ago – “What a dirty trick that was!” Dr. McCurdy remembered – the group switched to Harveys Bristol Cream, with which the opening drink tradition continues.

Dr. Worthington had been Dr. McCurdy’s professor in medical school and then helped Dr. McCurdy settle in as an employee during the racially-divisive Hospital Workers Strike in 1969. Dr. Jim Colbert, Vice President of Academic Affairs and father of political satirist and television host Stephen Colbert, kept operations running at the time, despite the internal strife.

A few years later, in 1974, Dr. Colbert and two of his sons died in a plane crash, and Dr. Worthington became acting vice president. The internal power structure at the school again was shaken.

“I would give Curtis huge credit for stabilizing the school,” McCurdy said. “He is calm but strong. He speaks forthrightly.”

Dr. Worthington graduated from The Citadel and the Medical College of South Carolina in 1952. He went on to a surgical internship in Boston and then an assistant professorship in Chicago before, as he explains it, “I found myself with a wife, a child, broke … and a few other stimuli.”

The family came home to the Lowcountry in 1957, when Dr. Worthington accepted a position as an assistant professor of anatomy at the Medical College. He became a full professor in 1969, later the associate dean at the College of Medicine and then vice president of academic affairs until 1982.

“I have never regretted being involved in academic side of things, rather than working as a clinician,” Dr. Worthington said. “It’s fun. It’s intellectual activity. It’s something worthwhile, and it’s something you can have a good time doing.”

Dr. Worthington continues his work at the Waring Library 22 years after his official retirement. As Dr. McCurdy put it, “He is the Waring Library and the Waring Library Society.”

In late November the society held a party to honor Dr. Worthington’s 30th anniversary as library director. Curator Susan Hoffius and former society President Dr. Charles S. Bryan recovered two bottles of Harveys Shooting Sherry to share at the event. With a glass of the sweet, dark wine in hand, everyone toasted the life and career of Dr. Curtis Worthington.

Gov. Nikki Haley awarded Dr. Worthington the Order of the Silver Crescent, one of South Carolina’s highest civilian honors, on Jan. 29 for his contributions to the Charleston and Medical University communities.