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COLLECTION Identifier: GA 10.20

Myrtelle M. Canavan papers


The Myrtelle M. Canavan papers, 1898-1945, are the result of Canavan's work as a bacteriologist, pathologist, researcher, and curator of the Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard Medical School. The papers, including correspondence, notes, and photographs, record some of the earliest work in the field of neuropathology.


  • 1898-1945.


Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research. Access requires advance notice. There are no restrictions on this collection. Consult Public Services for further information.

The Papers are stored offsite. Researchers are advised to contact reference staff for more information concerning retrieval of material.

Conditions Governing Use

The Harvard Medical Library does not hold copyright on all materials in the collection. Researchers are responsible for identifying and contacting any third-party copyright holders for permission to reproduce or publish. For more information on the Center's use, publication, and reproduction policies, view our Reproductions and Use Policy.


5.5 cubic feet (3 record cartons and 4 flat boxes)
The Myrtelle M. Canavan Papers, 1898-1945, are the result of Canavan's work as a bacteriologist, pathologist, researcher, and curator of the Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard Medical School. The papers document some of the earliest work in the field of neuropathology. The bulk of the material is from 1916-1943 and documents her continued interest in the study of the human brain. An integral part of the collection is research, including correspondence, notes and photographs, for her books Elmer Ernest Southard and his parents: a brain study and The Brains of 50 Insane Criminals as well as for the articles “Anomalous Origins of the Posterior Intercostal Arteries from 915 Thoracic Aortas: Their Role in Fractures of the Ribs,” “The Histology of the Superior Lachrymal Gland in Mental Disease and Defect,” “Lesions in Spinal Cord in Mental Disease and Defect Recognized by Myelin Sheath Stain,” “The First Thousand Autopsies of the Pathological Service of the Massachusetts Commission on Mental Diseases, 1914-1919,” “Schilder’s Encephalitis Periaxialis Diffusa, Report of a Case in a Child Aged Sixteen and one-half months,” “Multiple sclerosis in a Mental Defective,” “Simmonds’disease (pituitary cachexia) in an aged man with dementia praecox,” and “Histological study of the optic nerves in a random series of insane hospital cases.”

The collection consists of Canavan's professional correspondence relating to her research and employment, certificates, research notes, photographs, and drafts for articles and books, produced during her career in neuropathology. Returns of death records were used by Canavan for her work on the article “The First Thousand Autopsies” and were a continuation of the work of Dr. L. Vernon Briggs, a psychiatrist with Boston Dispensary. Briggs campaigned for an acute treatment facility tied to Harvard Medical School that led to the founding of Boston Psychopathic Hospital, later Massachusetts Mental Health Center in 1912; the first director was Dr. Southard.

The Myretelle M. Canavan Papers consist of two series: Series I. Biographical and Personal Records; and Series II. Medical Research Records. Oversized items are housed in boxes 5 and 6.

Biographical Note

Myrtelle M. Canavan (1879-1953) was a bacteriologist, pathologist, researcher, and curator of the Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard Medical whose medical research led to the identification of a rare disorder of the central nervous system in 1931 that would later be named Canavan’s disease. Myrtelle May Canavan was born 24 June 1879 in Greenbush Township, Clinton County, Mich., near the town of St. Johns, the county seat. She attended Michigan Agricultural College, 1898-1899, University of Michigan Medical School, 1899-1902, and Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, 1903-1905; M.D., 1905.In 1905 she married Dr. James F. Canavan.

Canavan received an appointment as assistant bacteriologist at Danvers State Hospital in Danvers, Mass. in 1907. At Danvers Canavan met Elmer Ernest Southard, Bullard Professor of Neuropathology at Harvard Medical School, who fostered her interest in neuropathology. Canavan became resident pathologist at the Boston State Hospital in 1910 and four years later was appointed pathologist to the Massachusetts Department of Mental Diseases. During this time she studied the neuropathological basis of mental disease. With Southard and others Canavan authored a monograph series, Waverly Researches in the Pathology of the Feeble-minded. After Southard's death in 1920, Canavan became acting director of the laboratories of the Boston Psychopathic Hospital. Canavan worked as curator of the Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard University Medical School from 1924 to 1945. While curator, Canavan strengthened the collections of the Warren Museum, acquiring some 1500 specimens for research and teaching.

Series and Subseries in the Collection

  1. Series I. Biographical and Personal Records, 1900-1945
  2. Series II. Medical Research Records, 1898-1943, undated
  3. ___ Subseries A. Returns of Death Research Records, 1919, undated
  4. ___ Subseries B. Brain Research Records, 1898-1942

Related Collections in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Center for the History of Medicine.

  1. Collected Papers of Myrtelle M. Canavan. 1.Mh.1912.C
  2. Papers of Elmer Ernest Southard. GA 81

Processing Information

Processed by S. Elizabeth Marshak under the direction of Giordana Mecagni.

Processing staff in the Center for the History of Medicine rehoused materials, removed staples and paperclips, and created a finding aid for the Myrtelle M. Canavan Papers.
Link to catalog
Canavan, Myrtelle M. (Myrtelle May), b. 1879. Papers, 1898-1945: Finding Aid.
Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine. Center for the History of Medicine.
The Myrtelle M. Canavan Papers have been processed and made available by the Archives for Women in Medicine project with generous support from our donors.

Repository Details

Part of the Center for the History of Medicine (Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine) Repository

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