Perspectives From a Medical Philatelist

Featuring Helen Osborne and Jean Wang

Jean Wang, MD is an Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Toronto and a Staff Hematologist and Clinician Scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, Canada. Her research focuses on understanding the biology of leukemia stem cells and developing better treatments and biomarker tools for patients with acute myeloid leukemia. She is also a long-time stamp collector with an interest in medical philately. Her Grand Award-winning thematic exhibit titled “Blood: A Modern Medicine” explores the science and societal impact of blood donation and transfusion. Jean has written a number of articles on different aspects of medical philately for both philatelic and medical journals and is currently a member of Canada Post’s Stamp Advisory Committee.

In this podcast, Jean Wang talks with Helen Osborne about:

  • Experience as a stamp collector
  • Use of stamps to tell stories
  • The importance of having hobbies in medicine

Music by Skilsel from Pixabay.

Producer and audio editor: James Aird


HELEN: Welcome to Talking about Blood. I’m Helen Osborne, host of this podcast series and a member of the advisory board for The Blood Project. I also host and produce my own podcast series: Health Literacy Out Loud. Today, I’m talking with Dr. Jean Wang, who’s an associate professor of medicine at the University of Toronto and a staff hematologist and clinician scientist at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, Canada. Dr. Wang’s research focuses on understanding the biology of leukemia stem cells and developing better treatments and biomarker tools for patients with acute myeloid leukemia. Jean also is a long time stamp collector with an interest in medical philately. Her accomplishments in combining these seemingly diverse interests are many. They include creating an award winning thematic stamp exhibit that explores the science and societal impact of blood donation and transfusion. Jean and I are both members of the Advisory Board for The Blood Project. I am delighted she accepted my invitation to also be a guest on this podcast series: Talking about Blood. Welcome Jean!

JEAN: Thank you Helen. Thank you for having me.

HELEN: I love these stories about how doctors do neat stuff we don’t quite expect and your story is right up there. Can you tell us all a little bit about the origin and how your professional and person interests intersect?

JEAN: Well, I’ve been a stamp collector for a long time. Like a lot of people, I started collecting stamps when I was little. I collected on and off. I would put it away when life got busy, and I don’t know, about 7 or 8 years I pulled it out again and got involved with one of our local stamp clubs, and got interested in topical collecting. When I was kind of casting about to find a topic… So, topical collecting basically means instead of collecting stamps from a certain country, you collect stamps related to a certain topic, related to what’s pictured on the stamps. So I thought it would be kind of cool to collect stamps related to what I do professionally, which is, I am a hematologist. So I looked around and I found that there a lot stamps that have been issued by many different countries about blood donation, you know urging people to donate blood and…

HELEN: Did that surprise you?

JEAN: Well, no, because stamps are… postal services and stamp issues are an important way to disseminate messages and information. I think public health messages, the blood donation and blood transfusion is a universal need in every country. It’s a natural kind of thing that can be promoted on stamps. You see the message on the stamp. You put it on your letter. You mail it to somebody. It goes through the post. This is how messages can get disseminated. 

HELEN: All right so even in this electronic age, to communicate through the printed word and the printed envelope, certainly is another way to get the word out there. 

JEAN: Yea, I mean it was much more important before the current electronic age. Letter writing has fallen by the wayside a little bit. People don’t write letters like they used to. We all have emails and so people actually putting pen to paper is certainly not as common as before. But in an era where there wasn’t instant communication, stamps and postal history was very important and it actually provides us with a written record and a window into the history of that time? What was going on? What were the important social messages that were being disseminated? Stamp collecting is like a window into history, and there are a lot of things we can learn from philately.

HELEN: That’s interesting, and also I just have to tell you as an aside, I love that word philately and this gives me an excuse to say it and to hear it. It is one of the most beautiful words. It means just stamp collecting. But meanwhile you’re doing this while you are also doing your professional work as a physician. When you and I were talking about this podcast a little bit, kind of where did we want to go with the conversation, you were telling me a little bit how your interest and what you’ve learned, your experiences with stamps in ways have affected your medicine, and how your medicine has affected your interest in stamps. Can you share that with all? You’ll do a much better job expressing that than I am.

JEAN: Well, so, I mean my day job is I do research in acute leukemia, so there actually isn’t a lot of stuff on stamps about acute leukemia. I found the next best thing which was blood donation and blood transfusion, which is still in my large area of specialty, even if it isn’t where I focus my research. So I started building this exhibit which really is, so a topical exhibit tells a story which is illustrated like a children’s book. You use stamps and other philatelic material to illustrate the story. The story itself is not philatelic. You can tell any story, but you use the stuff to illustrate the story.

HELEN: Wait let me just get this right. So you’re telling the story of blood transfusions let’s say, but you’re using the stamps, and I think the cancellation parts of the stamps, as a tool to tell that bigger story, is that correct?

JEAN: Yea, exactly. So on the page you have your story threads, and as you’re reading the story, every point is illustrated by a stamp or an envelope that has a picture on it. Or a postmark. And there is a huge variety of things you can find that are philatelic that can tell different aspects of the story. The challenge and the fun of it is actually finding things that will illustrate the exact point that you want to make.

HELEN: Were there any surprises to you as you were doing this?

JEAN: So the thing that sort of got me into this whole digging into the history of transfusion medicine was I had a stamp that was actually issued by Romania of all places. But they had a whole series of stamps that were commemorating you know significant events of the 20th century. One of the stamps commemorates Karl Landsteiner who is, he won a Nobel Prize for describing the A, B, O blood groups and he’s considered the father of transfusion medicine. But if you look carefully on the stamp, other than the A, B, O groups, there are roman numerals I, II, III, IV. I didn’t really understand what that meant, so I dug into that and discovered that there were actually around the time that he described A, B, Os, there were two other physicians that had done separate studies and also found the four blood groups. Prior to this, nobody really understood blood groups. They were just doing blind transfusions. So, there were these three blood group nomenclature systems that were out there. It was stuff that I hadn’t learned in medical school. It was really interesting history of medicine. And I got to it through my stamps and researching my stamps to put this exhibit together. It was just, it was an interesting pathway into that social history and history of medicine.

HELEN: Thank you. I love hearing that. Is the reverse true? Have you learned anything from… so this was how the stamps taught you a little bit more about the medicine. Has the medicine part done other than just piquing your interest in the topic? Have they influenced your stamp collecting?

JEAN: Well I mean, having a medical background means I, you know, so I’ve broadened my collecting interests beyond just the blood donation and transfusions. So I’ve looked at other aspects of medical philately and there is a lot of interesting things. Some of my other collections, for example, I collect advertising covers. So, these are basically the junk mail you get today. These are junk mail form the late 1800s and early 1900s. You would get envelopes with ads in the corner to kind of catch your attention so you wouldn’t just throw it out. And there were lots of ads from pharmaceutical companies and you know people selling sort of what were called patent medicines, which is basically like snake oil right, like quack medicine. So all these outrageous claims of basically curing everything under the sun. So it’s just really interesting and because I have a medical background I kind of know what to look for and it informs how I search for things and how I organize them. And I recognize things that are medical or related to this and that area because I have sort of a medical background so it gives me an advantage over somebody who doesn’t have a medical background.

HELEN: As your describing that process, I was thinking along the same lines, that you know how to analyze problems. You know how to look for the details out of the greater picture and bring that back to make sense out of the whole. At least that’s my impression of what you do. It builds on those wonderful physician skills you have with your hobby. Kind of an off shoot of this, a question I have, because I’ve always been interested in this one… back in my clinical days when we used to have a lot of medical trainees and med students coming to our unit – that was a psychiatry unit – I’d ask them about their hobbies. And, so many of them said, “I’m too busy. I can’t even think about my hobbies. I don’t do them anymore.” But you are this wonderful example of merging the two. What tips or pointers do you have either for newcomers to the field who feel like they don’t have time in their lives for hobbies right now, or those who’ve been doing the work for a while? What joy can it bring and how can you add that part to your life?

JEAN: I think it’s important for everybody to have something outside of work. Something you can go home to, you can relax with, that you enjoy. Even if it’s just reading a book or you know enjoying movies. I find when I sit down, and I have many different aspects that I have to my collection and I find that it really relaxes me and I enjoy it and it’s paid back in that I’ve been able to share some of the social history around transfusion medicine and how transfusions got started and it’s really fascinating. It’s never anything we learn in medical school. I’ve been able to share it not only with my stamp friends. I’ve been able to kind of give them a little bit of a medical education around the exhibits I’ve done. But also I’ve been able to share some of the social history with my medical colleagues too. I was invited to give a presentation – blood transfusion rounds – regarding the social history of transfusion medicine. I talked a lot about the medical stuff but I shared some pictures of my stamps and postmarks and things like that. They were all fascinated and they thought it was so exotic, because you know most of them are not collectors. And they’re like “Where do get all these? Where do you find all these things!?”

HELEN: Well we’re doing this at a distance. You can’t see. Maybe you can hear, I have this big smile on my face as you are talking about this. I just find this fascinating. And the fact that your greater lessons really have to do with finding something that can help you relax, that you enjoy, and then can share. We talked a little bit about what practicing physicians might be able to use a dose of that in their lives right now. I think we all could. Those people who are so focused on getting to that next hurdle that need to get to professionally. They still need room for joy and relaxation in their lives. What about for folks like me, who are simply curious about many things? I’m curious about blood. I’m curious what doctors do. And I’m curious about hobbies and stamps. What would you recommend for those of us?

JEAN: Well I mean, you know, understanding where your profession comes from gives you a lot of perspective. As physicians we take a lot of what we do for granted. We transfuse blood, we order blood transfusions. Everything is very pat and staid. The knowledge is there. But understanding where it came from and how it got there and how people made the discoveries and implemented the discoveries which is not always an easy pathway. I think it really gives you an important perspective on what you’re doing and the importance of it, and the impact of it in the present day. For people who are not… if you are a stamp collector, there’s lots of philatelic resources that you can… people who are postal historians… there are lot of people who dig into the history of things. I do medicine because that’s what I do but there are many, many other different topics that people have dug into the history. But if you’re not a stamp collector, you can also access… there are lots of books that are written about the history of medicine. That’s an interesting place to start, and something might pique your interest, and you can chase that. Other than stamps, there’s lots of people who collect old postcards or even just old ephemera, printed matter and old flyers, it’s just really interesting to see how things were done back then and it just gives you a window into that.

HELEN: You have gotten me thinking about all the other parts of my life too in addition to all the health literacy work and podcasting… what probably very few people know other than our neighbors is that we have a garden railway outside, a little toy garden railway, which is so different from everything else I am doing but I can relate to all that joy and perspective and that brings a sense of community too. Jean, thank you so much for sharing this. I know your work, you’ve written many important papers on medicine and philately, and how those two come together. You’ve done some award winning fanatic shows. We are going to list some of those on the information that goes along with this Talking about Blood podcast. But for now I just want to thank you so much. It’s been a true joy talking with you.

JEAN: Well thank you for having me.

HELEN: As we just heard from Dr. Jean Wang, it’s important for all of us to relax, enjoy, dove into new experiences and share that with others. In her case, it’s combining the work she does as a hematologist and researcher, with stamp collecting. To learn more about The Blood Project and explore its many resources for professionals, trainees, and patients, go to www.thebloodproject.com. I invite you to also listen to my own podcast series about health communication, called Health Literacy Out Loud at www.healthliteracyoutloud.com. Please help spread the word about this podcast series and The Blood Project. Thank you for listening.