Dreading your next visit to the doctor? There’s a cure for that in a Midtown historic building.
Pull up to 1664 Springhill Ave. and what you see fronting the USA Children’s and Women’s Hospital grounds is the Vincent/Doan house, an 1827 structure that’s one of the oldest in town. What you’ll find on the ground floor is an in-depth look at the expansion of science, the Mobile Medical Museum. It’s fitting given the Azalea City’s heritage as the starting point for Alabama public health.
“I’m the first real executive director the museum has had,” Raven Christopher told Artifice. “I’m trying to get a better feel for the story we’re looking to tell here.”
Christopher is particularly suited for such. A U.S. Army stint out of high school landed her in nursing. She eventually earned her bachelor’s degree in anthropology and is currently at work on her master’s in public history.
The museum had a protracted birth thanks to community leader Dr. Sam Eichold. When the daughter of 19th century Mobile physician James Heustis sought a use for a collection of medical devices and records, Eichold sparked the idea of a museum, encouraging area doctors to amass collectibles.
In 1983, the collection was moved into a building at the USA Medical Center. In 1990, it went to the medical center’s Springhill Avenue facility, then was moved to its current location in 2004.
Mobile had the state’s first county health department in 1816. While the museum has some representation of that period, it really picks up steam with Dr. Josiah Nott’s founding of the Alabama Medical College in downtown Mobile in 1859.
A large pair of papier-mache models of human physiological systems Nott brought from Paris for the medical school are overwhelming. Each standing seven feet or higher, the vividly colored three-dimensional sculptures in glass-fronted wooden cabinets were purchased for $20,000, roughly $560,000 in current dollars.
In that same room sit tools such as a screw tourniquet and a Civil War field surgery kit replete with knives and bone saws for quick amputations. A monochrome photo of discarded limbs lends greater sobriety to the purpose at hand, along with smaller-caliber munitions that did a great deal of damage.
Fittingly enough, an adjacent display takes viewers through historical anesthetic techniques. From chloroform through to 1950s anesthetic machines, achieving the optimal level of unconsciousness for surgery has never been simple.
X-ray screens and tubes are displayed, including an older x-ray of a cranium with about five inches of an ice pick driven through the upper cerebrum. The patient survived.
A mid-20th century fluoroscope worn on a surgeon’s head is on display. The technology allowed physicians to see into a specific area of a living body to observe real-time function through directed application of x-rays. It’s a technique still employed today, though greatly perfected.
The assortment of dental and optometry tools are shiver inducing but not nearly as mesmerizing as a nearby brown concoction. A bottle of Old Taylor medicinal whiskey made and bottled during Prohibition is one of the last of its breed, with the 1933 label date signifying its manufacture in the waning days of the Volstead Act.
A simulation of a 1930s exam room is startling in its differences and familiarity. From its Castor-oil dispenser to a medicine cabinet loaded with cloudy green bottles, its wooden-cased blood pressure cuff, an atomizer and kerosene lamp, it sours nostalgia’s tune.
There’s an iron lung on premises, a remnant of polio’s scourge prior to Jonas Salk’s vaccine. At its foot are leg braces and a lightweight wheelchair specifically made for a stricken child’s beach visits with her family. Though painted with the brilliant primary colors of seaside summers, it still carries an undercurrent of parental heartache, of watching a once-healthy daughter endure crippling disease.
There’s a nearly intimidating bypass machine that did the work of heart and lungs during coronary surgery in the 1950s and ‘60s. Still operable, Christopher turned it on and red fluid coursed through its tubes and cylinders.
There’s levity, too. Now-discredited treatments like bleeding bowls elicit eye rolls. Other items like the Revigorator were part of the national craze to induce health through abundant exposure to and ingestion of radium and radon.
Misguided attempts are still better than something Christopher called the “quackery case.” It held contraptions like the Elec-treat Mechanical Heart, a device that used a pair of D batteries and called itself a “transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulator.” A quarter million were sold and its inventor was eventually prosecuted for unsubstantiated medical claims.
Another device, the Oxydonor Victory, was a metal canister filled with carbon. The user was instructed to immerse the canister in cold water overnight — the colder, the better — then unfurl the attached wire and place the contact disc on their ankle while they slept. Its pamphlet claimed the device pulled oxygen from the water and moved it into the body to cure any number of ailments.
There’s no indication whether adjacent slots await Dr. Oz or homeopathy. What is apparent is how lucky we are to have the medical tools and knowledge we enjoy today.
Christopher stresses education at the facility. Nursing students already tour as well as students in the 8th grade through high school, but she wants more.
Tours of the facility are available by appointment only. Hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
General admission is $5, $4 for those over 62 and under 12; those under age 7 tour for free. Cash or check only.
For information or reservations, call 251-415-1109.
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