Tourist In Your Own Town: Museum of Medical History

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(Sacramento, CA)
Wednesday, August 16, 2006

 The museum is in a quiet East Sacramento neighborhood on Elvas Avenue. No big signs distinguish it from the other small office buildings nearby. In fact, museum curator – Doctor Bob LaPerriere – says even people living in the neighborhood are surprised to find it.

Yeah we still get people coming in and saying ‘gosh, I just live a half mile away and we didn’t realize you were here.’

But inside the Sierra Sacramento Valley Medical Society building is a fascinating collection of artifacts showcasing the progress of medicine from the Gold Rush to today.

When you open the glass doors to make your way into the building, the first thing you see is the iron lung - a long, yellow, cylindrical piece of machinery big enough to contain a person. LaPerriere switches the machine on and explains that it was used back in the 1940s and ‘50s to help polio victims stay alive.

When the polio virus affected their diaphragm and they could not breathe, this breathed for them and they were in it for anywhere from a matter of weeks to some people who actually spent their entire lives in an iron lung. There’s probably fewer than 20 iron lungs on public display in the United States as far as we know at this point.  

The display cases that fill the museum include turn-of-the-century pharmaceutical tools used to make drugs, colorful Gold Rush era medicine bottles and ivory handled medical instruments.

When you look at the handles and they’re either ivory or wood you know obviously those were before the days of sterilization. In fact there’s the story about the Civil War surgeon who did an amputation and he would then take the amputation knife and hold it between his teeth while he helped the patient off the table so obviously there was not belief in those days of the germ theory.

A couple of the items on display aren’t from the past – they’re living creatures that are here to illustrate how doctors used them to heal.
We have our leeches and maggots over here. Maggots of course in the 1800s were incidental. They keep ulcers and tissue very, very, very clean. Of course back in the 1800s the use of leeches was for bleeding. Bleeding and cupping were common physical treatments along with puking and purging. Those were kind of the four mainstays of regular medical treatment in the 19th Century.

Leeches and maggots are still used by doctors today; maggots for removing dead tissue and leeches for draining blood after reconstructive surgery.
The museum even includes a section on quackery. LaPerriere pulls out an old box containing a sealed glass tube with a handle and electric plug.

We’ll turn off the power before we plug this in (zapping sounds). This is producing ultra violet rays but also electrical energy and when you held it near the skin it actually would produce a spark. It was primarily a quackery type of unit and in fact when you look through these Montgomery Wards and Sears and Roebuck early catalogs around 1900 carried these ultra violet type ray units. This is called a Master Violet Ray, this particular one.   

A more recent entry in the museum is from the early 1990s, one of the first electronic units to record E-M-G or nerve waves.

It would be used for instance in diagnosing multiple sclerosis. Prior to this they’d have to do written records of it.  
And even though this E-M-G machine is less than 20-years old, LaPerriere says it belongs in the museum just as much as the sections on early x-ray machines, antibiotics, Asian medicine and quackery.

Because it’s all part of medical practice whether it would have been regular medical practice or the quacks and of course if you just look at the changes in the last 10 to 20 years that have occurred largely due to technology you can really see the rate at which medical progress is changing and it’s changing more rapidly year by year of course.

The Museum of Medical History celebrates its 5th anniversary this fall. You can see a few of the museum’s items on display at this year’s State Fair. But to see it all, you can make a trip to the museum itself on Elvas Avenue near H Street.