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History and pre-health major travels to London to study rare archives of World War I-era surgeries 

Author: Ashley Lo

Brooke Guenther London

Brooke Guenther's summer research trip to London was the first to be funded with a grant through the new Medicine and the Liberal Arts program at Notre Dame's Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values.

Brooke Guenther couldn’t believe her good fortune. She was spending six days in the London Metropolitan Archives, transcribing files from 60 facial reconstruction surgeries performed during and after World War I.

Only a handful of people had ever viewed the files before — and for a history and Arts and Letters pre-health major, there was no place she’d rather be.

“Having the love I have for history, it was like being in a candy store,” said Guenther. “Spending hours in the World War I section, knowing I was contributing to its history with my thesis, was just so exciting.”

Guenther was reviewing work done by Sir Harold Gillies, the father of modern-day plastic surgery, comparing photos of wounds and analyzing the surgeon’s notes. She paid particularly close attention to the tubed pedicle reconstructive technique, an innovative method for repairing skin and soft tissue that reduced the risk of infection.

With a heart for both the human and the technical sides of surgery, Guenther hopes her senior thesis research will fill in the history around Gillies’ surgical advances, exploring the relationship between patients and the surgeon and studying societal reaction to survivors of wounded veterans who underwent plastic surgery. 

“I’m intrigued by questions like, ‘Who gets to decide someone looked normal enough?’ ‘What is the stopping point in a reconstruction surgery?’ ‘Ultimately, what makes someone human, especially alongside these medical advances?’” she said.

“Having the love I have for history, (the London Metropolitan Archives) was like being in a candy store. Spending hours in the World War I section, knowing I was contributing to its history with my thesis, was just so exciting.”

A new opportunity

Guenther’s research trip was funded by a grant through the new Medicine and the Liberal Arts program at Notre Dame’s Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values. She was the first Storozynski Undergraduate Research Fellow, one of several opportunities through the program for pre-health majors and other students to develop further training in empathy, ethics, and other core liberal arts skills that will benefit them in their medical careers.

Brooke Guenther Royal College

Guenther holding a photo of her research subject, Sir Harold Gillies, outside the Royal College of Surgeons in London.

As a history and A&L pre-health supplementary major, Guenther is able to take all the science courses necessary to prepare for medical school, while pursuing another academic passion in the liberal arts.

Juggling her two majors with different skill sets is demanding — studying for a biology exam while also needing to read 200 pages for a history class isn’t easy — but Guenther has always found the challenge to be invigoration.

“I really enjoy the combination of hard-core memorization and the analysis of primary documents,” she said. “My brain works both ways, and switching tasks was more like taking breaks.” 

In a class on the history of medical sciences, Guenther first encountered the unique intersection of her majors, and saw an opportunity to study questions that mattered to her personally and professionally.

“A lot of people are interested in modern technology and where we are going in the future,” she said, “but looking at past successes and failures in labs, experiments, techniques, and procedures is how we see humans innovate and modernize.”

Medicine with a heart 

Guenther Football

Guenther also works as a student athletic trainer for multiple sports, including the Notre Dame football team.

After graduation, Guenther plans to spend a year devoted to full-time service work before entering medical school. She believes her experience in history will make her a more humane doctor — while her broader Arts and Letters coursework provided an opportunity to make deeper connections between disciplines.

“I have loved all of my professors in the College of Arts and Letters,” she said. “Not only are they interested in the topics they’re teaching, but they also care about who we are as persons and people they’re sending out into the world.”