Published on Thursday, April 6, 2017
UMMC leadership extends its sympathy to the family of a former member of the Medical Center faculty in appreciation of their loved one's contributions to the academic health sciences center.
Appropriately, this portrait of Irene Graham hangs in the Rowland Medical Library, where Graham worked for more than 30 years and where many of the paintings she donated are still displayed.
Irene Graham, the first director and original champion of the Peter Rowland Medical Library at UMMC, died April 2 in Gastonia, North Carolina. She was 93.
A voracious book lover and keen art collector who grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio as one of five siblings, Graham arrived in Jackson in 1955 to re-locate and direct the medical library, which moved from its original home on the University's Oxford campus after the Medical Center opened that year. She held that position for more than three decades, retiring in 1986.
Described as a “talkative visionary,” “free spirit,” and “unique personage” by her friend and former library staffer, David Juergens, she was known outside of work for indulging her pets, coddling her plants and pampering her taste buds.
As library director, her zeal was legendary, and sometimes intimidating, as noted by one of her staff members in a biography compiled when Graham was still director: “If she addressed you as friend, you're in trouble; however, if she said, 'my friend,' then you knew you were in really big trouble.”
A student of medieval and ancient history, and international law, Graham earned her bachelor's degree at the University of Cincinnati, where she began her career as a medical librarian in 1953 after attending the Graduate School of Librarianship at the University of Illinois.
In Jackson, she also oversaw the library's second move, in the early 1980s, from the basement of the main hospital to its current home in the Verner Holmes Learning Resource Center; she helped plan and design the space for that facility - considered one of her major accomplishments.
In this undated photo, four members of the original faculty and staff at UMMC reunite. They are, from left: Dr. Peter Blake, the first director of the Introduction to Clinical Medicine course; Dr. Orlando Andy, first head of the Department of Neurosurgery; Irene Graham, UMMC's first librarian; and Dr. Warren Bell, chair of what was then a separate administrative unit: the Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences, for Clinical Pathology.
During her stewardship of the library, named in honor of a former professor of pharmacology, Graham was passionate about the institution. Dr. Helen Barnes, a retired obstetrician-gynecologist who joined the UMMC faculty in 1969, remembered her as someone who stretched the boundaries of what a library should be, to include art installations and historical archives.
“She was always such a go-getter,” Barnes said. “She wanted to inform you about everything.”
Susan B. Clark, associate professor and current library director, commended Graham for establishing “a strong, flexible foundation for the library and its future growth.
“When the library outgrew its space in the hospital, Miss Graham became the major force behind construction of the Learning Resource Center. Rowland continues to adapt as necessary to the institution's changing needs. Our ability to do so is Miss Graham's legacy to us.”
Graham, left, and Dr. Helen Barnes, UMMC retired obstetrician-gynecologist, reunite in April 2008, decades after Graham's retirement.
That legacy includes a devotion to her colleagues and profession; Graham took on numerous leadership roles in national, regional and state professional organizations, including the Southern Chapter/Medical Library Association and the National Library of Medicine/Medical Library Grant Program.
As the medical library's overseer, she added a personal touch, donating several paintings and other works to its décor, assembling a robust collection expanded by her immediate successor, Ada Seltzer. Among Grahams' donations was an Audubon bird print that embodied another of her enthusiasms: ornithology.
Graham was also highly partial to Yorkshire terriers, flowers, cooking, classical music and premium chocolate.
Graham listens to a reading of her retirement citation by then-Chancellor Dr. R. Gerald Turner during commencement. Graham retired officially on June 30, 1986 after 31 years of service at the Medical Center.
But her assortment of books - more than 2,500 titles - may have been her most cherished possession, according to a biographical sketch written a few years ago by Juergens, the now-retired head of the library's Department of Collection Development and Acquisitions.
“If the house caught on fire,” she told Juergens, “I would rescue my books first and my art second.”
She also collected experiences. A world traveler, she and one of her colleagues sailed up the Nile River before the construction of the Aswan Dam was completed around 1970.
In spite of her cosmopolitan appetites and Midwestern upbringing, Graham was also a connoisseur of many facets of Southern culture. She accumulated works of art by Mississippi and other Southeastern artists, amassed books signed by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eudora Welty of Jackson, and concocted in her kitchen what she called “the best Southern corn pudding,” according to Juergens. Perhaps that was all owing to her family's original roots in central Kentucky.
Graham was with her family at the time of her death, living with relatives in North Carolina, said Connie Machado, associate professor and associate director of the Rowland Medical Library. As of publication time, they were planning to cremate her remains and hold an interment service at a later date in Cincinnati to honor her memory.
Irene is surrounded by some of her many constituents in this April 1962 photo.
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