February 9, 2022

The mystery of “Little Jim”

Who is the serious little boy in the 1932 picture, and why is he dressed like a miniature doctor?

The Vanderbilt Pediatric house staff, 1932-33 — and “Little Jim.”

It is a Medical Center tradition, stretching back almost a century: to have group photos taken in front of the gothic doorway that frames the traditional entrance to the building we now call Medical Center North.

Recently I was doing some research in the Medical Center Archives and came across one such group photo, this one of the 1932-33 Vanderbilt Pediatrics residents. There were six residents that year, all young white men, all standing seriously in a row for the unnamed photographer.

Nothing unusual about that, but posed in the middle of the row of residents is a little boy. He is a serious-looking little guy who looks to be about 4 years old. The information with the photo identifies him only as “Little Jim.”

Even the longest-lived member of the 1932-33 Pediatrics house staff is now surely no longer living and can’t tell us who Little Jim was. As for Little Jim himself — could he still be alive?

After you look at the picture for a minute, it becomes clear that Little Jim was not just some child who happened to be nearby and who was pulled into the photo on a spur-of-the-moment decision— kind of a “we’re-pediatricians-so-we’re-going-to-pose-with-a-kid” whim that somebody had.

We can know that because as he stands in the middle of the six residents, he is dressed just as they are, in the uniform residents wore in that day: a white coat, white pants, white shirt, and dark tie. In his case, though, everything is in miniature.

He is outfitted as a kind of a “junior resident,” and his appearance in this picture was clearly planned. Somebody had to get him exactly the right clothes, make sure he wore them that day, and had to know the right time and place to meet the photographer.

The information included with the picture has the names of the six residents. Ordered left to right, they are Thomas L. Harris, Dan German Jr., John M. Saunders, William O. Vaughan, Harry A. Sauberli, and William R. Phillips.

The reason that we know who those residents are is because about 20 years ago VUMC emeritus pediatrician Harris D. Riley Jr., MD, worked with the Vanderbilt archivist James Thweatt to identify as many Pediatric house staff members as they could in old photos. Thweatt says they were completely successful in identifying every single person in those pictures except for one elusive name. All we know about Little Jim is – well, “Little Jim.”

The first time that Thweatt saw the photo of Little Jim was when the identification project with Riley was underway, and they found a second photo of the boy by himself, likely taken at the same time as the group photo. No additional information, though.

The only known photo of Little Jim by himself, probably taken on the same day as the group shot.

Some of what we do know about the people in that photo is tragic. Dan German Jr., who stands second from the left in the group photo, did not live very long after the picture was taken. He died in 1934 at the age of 25 in an automobile accident.

But even the longest-lived member of the 1932-33 Pediatrics house staff is now surely no longer living and can’t tell us who Little Jim was.

As for Little Jim himself — could he still be alive? It’s possible. Given his apparent age at the time the photo was taken, he would be in his mid-90s now.

When Riley and Thweatt were identifying the residents from old photographs, Thweatt recalled that Riley had heard talk of Little Jim long ago, and that he (Riley) seemed to remember that Little Jim may have been the son of someone who was an employee at the time.

That’s interesting as far as it goes, but, of course, a half-recalled rumor from long ago is not a satisfying answer to the mystery. Riley died in 2010, so any additional memories he might have been able to call up are now lost to us.

There is one more tantalizing detail that Thweatt recalled. He says that more than 25 years ago, shortly after he began working in the Medical Center archives, a man he describes as an “older gentleman” came in one day and mentioned that he was a patient and “mascot” for Pediatrics a long time ago.

At that time, Thweatt had not seen the photos of Little Jim and the remark meant little to him. Now, looking back, he wonders if that “older gentleman” was the boy in the photo. The man left that day without leaving his name, and as far as anyone knows, never came back.

So that’s where the mystery stands.

If Little Jim had a family member working at Vanderbilt in the 1930s, maybe somebody working here now recognizes him as a relative. There are certainly many employees who come from families with generations of service to the Medical Center.

Or maybe somebody recalls a story from a longtime employee about a little boy who was a “mascot” to Pediatrics.

Does anybody have any clues that will help solve the mystery? If you know anything about Little Jim — or you are Little Jim — please contact Wayne Wood at wayne.wood@vumc.org.

Photo credit: Vanderbilt Department of Medical Illustration, “Vanderbilt Pediatrics House Staff, 1932-1933,” VUMC Through Time: A Photographic Archive, accessed January 17, 2022, https://eblthroughtime.library.vanderbilt.edu/items/show/436.