New Salinas museum shows the medical profession the way it used to be.
Thursday, May 28, 1998
After 14 years of collecting artifacts, the Museum of Medical History opens this weekend at Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital''s Downing Resource Center.
The museum houses a world-class collection of antique medical instruments. While most date from the late 1800s to the early 1950s, some go back to the 1700s and early 1800s. Visitors can view a replica of a 1920s doctor''s office set up for a tonsillectomy, and a pharmacy storefront with its antique apothecary jars. The surgery exhibit features the operating table owned by John Steinbeck''s physician, Dr. Henry Murphy, who took out Steinbeck''s tonsils and later treated his pneumonia.
Medical history museums are hard to find, according to Dr. June Dunbar, museum chairperson and founder of the effort to "save some history. A lot of hospitals have cases with some items. We are fairly unique in that very few hospitals in the US have full antiquarian museums."
Display cases highlight antique or obsolete instruments used in specialties such as eyes, ears, nose and throat, obstetrics/gynecology, urology, proctology, surgery, laboratory and unproven medicine. Historical displays include tributes to nursing history and the hospital''s volunteer Service League.
"The museum provides a window to our past so that we can more easily understand and prepare for the future of medicine," says Dunbar, a retired physician who specialized in family practice and geriatrics for close to 40 years in the Salinas Valley.
Dunbar explains that in 1983, hospital staff realized they had been throwing away old instruments as technology changed and new medical tools were acquired. A committee got together and began contacting retired doctors and their families to collect the artifacts that now form the core collection of the museum. "Often a treatment or instrument becomes obsolete within years, never to be seen again," says Dunbar. "By preserving this collection, one gets a perspective of scientific history, particularly local medical history."
The collection--owned by a committee of medical historians--grew over the years, but there was no space to display the items until the Downing Resource Center was built. In 1994, the Service League contributed $75,000 to start the museum and the hospital contributed at least as much. Recently the medical staff contributed funds to purchase a collection of museum quality instruments from the 1700s and 1800s. All other items are donated or loaned.
The museum includes countless items long since replaced or altogether gone from use. Among artifacts not often seen are numerous Civil War tools, including field amputation kits, tourniquets, syringes and vein cutters. There is a collection of obstetrical equipment common before the development of Cesarean sections. Delivery instruments in the Ob/Gyn specialty display case include forceps used by the town''s doctors to deliver most of the babies born in Salinas in the 1940s and 1950s. Other equipment long surpassed by medical advances includes an ether mask for anesthetizing surgery patients, a copper tracheal dilator used in treatment of diphtheria, and a violet ray machine once supposed to improve health wherever applied. Among the more amusing displays is a collection of bedpans that preceded the development of plastic.
"Preserving our medical past is particularly important for younger health care professionals in order for them to recognize the tremendous changes occurring in the field of health care," says Dunbar. "Maybe it''ll get kids interested in science and medicine."
The museum''s exhibits are designed by Darcie Fohrman, whose work includes the children''s exhibit at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Meg Welton is the museum''s historian. To increase its appeal to school-age children and young adults, the museum plans to expand its interpretative and interactive displays, some in English and Spanish. During the school year, docent tours will be offered for science and health classes.
"By preserving this collection of items and information, one gets a true perspective of the historical importance of the scientific field. It reminds us all of the work, dedication, ingenuity and research done by those in the health care field," says Dunbar. "I hope people leave the museum with a sense of where we''ve been so we can really appreciate what we have now and where we''re going in the future."
The museum''s grand opening takes place Saturday and Sunday from 1-4pm in the Downing Resource Center at 450 E. Romie Ln. in Salinas. The museum and all events are free to the public. 755-0736. Donations of medically significant artifacts and contributions to the project continue to be accepted by the Service League.