Tim Nutt welcomes visitors to his trove of medical history. His cache includes such curiosities as a vintage hyfrecator (electric wart remover) and a Civil War surgeon's scrapbook of -- how to say it? -- scraps.
Tim Nutt keeps miniature flags of Arkansas, his home state, and Liechtenstein, his ancestral home, on the antique desk in his home library. He collects books of Arkansas history and Arkansas-related fiction.“I’ve been in Arkansas history circles for a long time,” he says,“and I still hope to have an impact on Arkansas history.”
Tim Nutt (left) and David Prater re-enact a knife fight that occurred in the Arkansas Legislature in 1837 during a previous Washington County Historical Society Statehood Day. The fight between speaker John Wilson, portrayed by Nutt, and Rep. Joseph J. Anthony began over a personal insult. Anthony was killed in the fight.
"I'd love to see more people come in and use the collection," Nutt says of the Historical Research Center's voluminous holdings at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock.
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: May 25, 1970, Jonesboro
• Growing up, I wanted to be: An archivist. My parents wanted me to be an accountant.
• My first interest in history came from: The sesquicentennial of Arkansas [the state’s 150th anniversary] in 1986. I realized this was something I could study.
• If I could live any time in the past, it would be: The 1880s in Arkansas — especially if I could have been among the German immigrants, so I could experience what immigrants from Europe were seeing for the first time.
• A book I would like to write would be called: The German-Catholic Experience in Arkansas. I’ve been gathering research for a number of years.
• Another subject that I could fill a book with: Why I Love Arkansas, and Why You Should, Too
• The last book I read was: A Brief History of the Dead by [Little Rock novelist] Kevin Brockmeier.
• My favorite doctor in TV history is: Quincy, M.E., [who was a] medical examiner.
• I think my doctor would describe me as: Unusual.
• I would like to go down in history as: A saver of Arkansas history.
• One word to sum me up is: Curmudgeon.
"For the average person, it's a way to better understand the medical history of Arkansas," he says, having taken charge of the research center in August 2015.
He is the bearded oracle on the fifth floor of the UAMS Library. His serene lair is accessible only by a skywalk that Indiana Jones might suspect to be a trap, but come along, this way to the reading room.
The director oversees 6,200 books on medical history, a collection that has been building since around 1970. Other notable holdings include the medical center's institutional papers going back to the 1870s.
It all began in 1879 with eight founders and 22 students next to a hardware store. The rest of the story is there for anybody who wants to stick with it, and Nutt is there to keep the pages turning.
The records are of absolute interest to "anyone who is researching the history of medicine in Arkansas," he says. "The bulk of my day is spent helping researchers."
He is but one part academic, though, and equal part showman on a mission "to raise the visibility [of the research center] so more people are aware of it."
Nutt's goal is to collect medical histories from all 75 counties in Arkansas -- agreements, letters, ledgers, diaries, photos, post cards, advertisements, practically anything related to medical care. He wants people to find out if they have this sort of stuff in the attic, maybe, or moldering in the basement. An archive depends on donations, and Nutt worries about losing to his competition -- the trash truck.
The past keeps slipping away "all the time," he says. Perfectly good history is cleaned out, bagged and given the heave-ho, sometimes by "notable people who think they haven't done anything noteworthy. It's just mind-boggling."
For example, he is grateful that somebody thought to save an 1836 ledger from a name-forgotten drugstore in Helena. One of the research center's oldest treasures, it records a sense of day-to-day life in yesterday's river town by remembering what people bought. They came in for camphor and quinine, bottled ink and playing cards. And "laudanum," the hand-written ledger notes like any other jot. Druggists of the time sold this hard-hitting narcotic syrup as freely as aspirin, which they didn't sell. Aspirin hadn't been invented.
Archives traditionally collect papers, Nutt says. Objects go to museums. The store ledger is hard to classify as a paper object. He allows, too, for other objects that help show what the papers tell.
A doctor's pocket baby scale is one thing. A penlike cylinder with a hook on either end, it looks like it might do as well to weigh a fish. How did it work? Nutt wishes somebody would enlighten him.
The collection includes an old baby carrier, something a midwife probably used. "It looks a lot like a cat carrier," he says, but this tote has a pink-and-blue decal of a little lamb on the side.
A gold-handled cane represents tobacco-chewing professor Augustus Breysacher, one of the founding fathers of the medical school that became UAMS. He's remembered as a gentleman and tobacco-spitter of unerring accuracy, able to ping each in a row of cuspidors dead-center as he paced and lectured.
Another of the founders, Dr. Edwin Bentley, kept a tidy Civil War scrapbook of samples from diseased intestines -- page after page of snipped-out ulcers and lesions that might have spelled a soldier's demise if he hadn't died, instead, of a rifle ball. Nutt handles the nondescript, beige-covered scrapbook with white gloves, but only in the way that archivists handle everything with gloves to protect against finger smudges.
The petrified contents have been "shellacked," he says. "You can't get anything from them." For him -- not even the whoopsies.
And if this bit of browsing doesn't conjure a feeling of "uh-oh," he can be fairly safe to say nothing will. Sometimes, history demands more than a strong curiosity: a strong constitution.
"Medical history is a specialized field," Nutt says, but medicine -- how people felt, and what they did to stay well -- is a "key part of history in general."
THIS MIGHT HURT A LITTLE
To understand the Civil War, "you not only want to look at the soldiers and the battles they fought," Nutt says. "You also want to look at the medicine of the time, the diseases they got and wounds and treatments."
"You especially want to look at everyday experience" -- what good health meant before antibiotics. Life had to be met with different expectations when there was no recovery from illnesses and injuries that are treatable today.
So he wonders what made his great-great-grandparents take such a risk as to leave home in Liechtenstein, in Central Europe, headed for Arkansas. The immigrants settled near present-day Bigelow, in Perry County. Did they really believe the promises that went around to entice settlers?
If so, they expected a magic land of always-temperate climate and high crops, where no grasshopper would dare chew a leaf. What did they think when they saw they had traded European civilization for the buckskin frontier?
"I imagine they were somewhat horrified," Nutt says. But they stayed, and as the wheel of generations turned, so did he. The youngest of seven children, he grew up in New Dixie, one of few places smaller than Bigelow's current population of 315.
Nutt brings a 26-year career in history to bear in his new medical post. He came to the job as head of Special Collections at the University of Arkansas Libraries in Fayetteville. Before, he was acting curator of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock; and before then, he was managing editor of the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.
"I don't think I ever truly escape history," he says. Even his favorite getaway from work takes him back in time: train travel.
To understand him, consider that he swears his first childhood ambition was to be an archivist. Even before he knew the word "archivist," he filed away such things as elementary school valentines that he hints he still could produce.
"He was always interested in collecting stuff -- pictures, especially," Nutt's older brother, Patrick, remembers. "I think he got it from our mother and grandmother on mother's side of the family. They collected."
The boys' mother had a big cedar chest full of old pictures, Patrick says, "and he loved to go through those, and help her organize them, and display them and show them to people."
Also, "he got into 4-H, and a lot of the program was to keep a workbook of everything you'd done, and he was very meticulous about getting all that together."
Patrick became a certified public accountant in Benton. Tim might have been an accountant, too, the way his parents wanted. He knew mastering math was not in his wheelhouse.
Tim holds a bachelor of arts degree in history from the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and a master's degree in library and information science from the University of Oklahoma.
"He's laid-back," Patrick says. "I think the whole family is laid back. We don't get out there and do anything exciting, at least not what other people think is exciting. But he's found his niche, and he enjoys it."
Tim describes the work more adventurously: "There's something about cataloging -- about disorganized materials, and organizing things so they can be used. It's applying order to chaos."
WHAT THE DOCTOR ORDERED
Nutt was 16 the year Arkansas turned 150. Historian Tom Dillard chaired the 1986 Arkansas Sesquicentennial celebration of statehood, and "it was sort of an epiphany," Nutt remembers.
"I'm sure I was the only kid in school who cared anything about the Arkansas Sesquicentennial. But I was always interested in history -- collecting papers and information. The sesquicentennial validated all that."
"I bought the T-shirt. I bought the souvenir buttons," he says. And Dillard seemed to him "a rock star."
In 1990, he approached Dillard at UCA "as the first celebrity I ever met." Nutt was there as a student, and Dillard was at work on the university's archives. Rather than ask for an autograph, Nutt says, "I asked for a job."
"Tim was sort of a protege of mine," Dillard says. "I take some credit for discovering him. I hired him when he was 20 years old."
Nutt started as a paper-sorting "archival processor," work that promised little of a rocket ride to academic stardom. But Dillard saw talent on the rise.
"He's a natural at doing the kinds of work he does, and that I did," the retired historian says. "One of his strengths that I never had -- he was an information technology major. He has incredible IT skills."
Dillard led the creation of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture and credits Nutt's computer savvy for the know-how that made it work. The encyclopedia is 4,300 entries and counting at encyclopediaofarkansas.net.
"They say politics is local, and all history is local in the sense that American history has played out on the local level," Dillard says. "A lot of that playing out has been done on the East Coast. But Arkansas has a history, too, that needs to be fleshed out and shared with people, and that's what Tim Nutt is good at doing."
MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY
"Tim is passionate about Arkansas and preserving its history," says Lisa Speer, state historian and director of the Arkansas State Archives.
"He brought the same enthusiasm for documenting the stories of Arkansas and its people to his work as [past] president of the Arkansas Historical Association," she says. "Tim is also a good storyteller," and "I always enjoy having Tim talk at State Archives events because I know he's going to be interesting and funny."
Nutt's recent presentation topics have included "Perry County History As Seen Through Newspaper Headlines" and "Relatives, Reunion and Ribel: Eating My Way Through Liechtenstein."
But he doesn't cook -- not ribel (Liechtensteiner cornmeal crumble) or much of anything else -- and describes himself as a grump. In fact, "curmudgeon" is what he prefers.
At home, the belongings that define him include floor-to-ceiling shelves of age-faded books about Arkansas history and a drawing of Winnie-the-Pooh's curmudgeonly companion, the dour donkey, Eeyore.
He looks dour when confronted with the rumor that, in grade school, he and three girls formed a singing group called Timmy and the Tim-ettes. "We sang on the playground," he says. "It's lucky we didn't have YouTube."
He is a "complex character," as Catherine Wallack, architectural records archivist at the UA in Fayetteville, describes her former boss. Gloomy Gus, yes, but also "creative, funny and sometimes mischievous." A collector of archival materials needs all those qualities, she says, along with a genuine interest in history to persuade people to hand over sometimes valuable papers for free.
"He knows this is meaningful work," Wallack says, "and that the history of Arkansas will for generations, in some part, be based on the work he is doing today."
Nutt has plenty more to show at the UAMS Historical Research Center. Here, see -- a boxed set of dental instruments with a bonus, a cast replica of the donor's own teeth. There's also the biography of 19th-century physician Lorenzo Gibson-- recorded as a man of such courage that he ran for public office in Arkansas and yet, amazingly, went about unarmed.
Beyond these wonderments, the archives hold boxes and boxes on shelf after shelf, all full of who-knows-what, like boxes of candy, the way Nutt sees it.
History is "something I could study for the rest of my life," he says.
Archivists never die, they just file away.
Ron Wolfe can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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