The Legend of Frances Houston

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Frances Houston was a dedicated medical librarian for nearly half a century, beginning in 1918.

Frances Houston was a dedicated medical librarian for nearly half a century, beginning in 1918. (Click to enlarge.)

James Widerman C’66 shared a touching memory of a stalwart in the Biomedical Library, Frances Houston. Frances was a medical librarian in the School of Medicine for 49 years, helping numerous students advance their studies, as evidenced by James’ testimony below. When she retired in 1967 and became medical librarian emerita, Frances continued as executive secretary of the University’s Medical Alumni Association. Frances passed away on January 24, 1972, at the age of 80, as reported in the Almanac. Subsequently, Penn Libraries established the Frances Houston Medical Book Fund in 1973 to support the purchase of educational resources for the medical library.

James writes, “There is a bronze bust of one Mrs. Frances Houston in the ‘new’ medical library. Many years ago, I happened to be on campus and asked the librarian if he had any idea who she was. He didn’t. Around 1960, when high school graduation was in sight, my father, Arnold H. Widerman C’33 M’37, took me along Hamilton Walk to the Morgan Building, then the medical school library, to see his old haunts. The Richards building had not been built yet. He had been an undergraduate and then a medical school student from 1933 through 1941. Mrs. Houston told me the following story about him.

This bust of Frances Houston now sits in the Biomedical Library at 3610 Hamilton Walk. (Click to enlarge.)

This bust of Frances Houston now sits in the Biomedical Library at 3610 Hamilton Walk. (Click to enlarge.)

“My father worked three jobs in order to pay the tuition for medical school during the Depression, and there was no money left over for books or a microscope. Mrs. Houston became aware of this and located the texts he would need at the beginning of each of the four years. She lent him the books and then reported to the school that they had mysteriously disappeared. They miraculously would show up at the end of each school year, and she would return them to the shelf. My father graduated second in his med school class.

“I began my own four years at Penn in 1962. For the first three I was a bio major, so I had occasion to be in the Hamilton Walk vicinity. During those times, I would drop in on Mrs. Houston; she was still running the medical school library! It was gratifying that she remembered both my father and me.

“Of course, I have other Penn stories, but those will have to wait for another time. The Mrs. Houston story, though, remains one of my favorites.”

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