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Ohio Museum Showcases Medicine’s Cultural Side

  • A 1960's Gynodate clock and calculator by Swiss watch maker Jaquet claimed it was "indispensable to every woman for natural birth control." It combined a regular alarm clock and a gauge to calculate the "safe period," while an attractive cover concealed the birth control function, is on display at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. (Mike Cardew/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS)

  • A Dalkon Shield, which was found to cause severe injury to a disproportionately large percentage of its users, is on display at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. (Mike Cardew/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS)

  • A Ramses condom box at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. (Mike Cardew/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS)

  • A trio of douche syringes, the top one from 1920 and the bottom two from 1940 at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. (Mike Cardew/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS)

  • A 1836 pewter vaginal douching syringe on display in the contraception exhibit at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. (Mike Cardew/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS)

  • A detail shot of various prototypes of intrauterine devices on display in the contraception exhibit at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. (Mike Cardew/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS)

  • A leech jar from 1850 is one display at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. (Mike Cardew/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS)

  • Trephine instruments from the early 18th century at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Surgeons at the time would perform trephine, drilling an opening in the cranium to relieve pressure on the brain. (Mike Cardew/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS)

  • Various herbal remedies used to cause miscarriages are on display at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. (Mike Cardew/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS)

  • An ivory anatomical model of a female, dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. (Mike Cardew/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS)

  • Davol's Whirlpool Spray Syringe circa 1905 is on display with an advertisement for Pri-Mo Ladies' Syringe circa 1895 at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. (Mike Cardew/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS)



Akron Beacon Journal
Sunday, November 27, 2016

Cleveland – Be glad you live in the 21st century.

Be glad your doctor does, too.

Were you around a century or two ago, you might have had a troublesome molar wrenched from your jaw with a barbaric device more likely to break off the tooth than remove it. You might have had a wound treated with leeches or an injured limb sawed off without anesthesia.

Medicine, thankfully, has come a long way. The Dittrick Museum of Medical History is here to remind us of just how far.

The museum, on the Case Western Reserve University campus, traces the practice of medicine since the early 1800s, when white folks settled in this part of the country and brought Western medicine with them.

There’s a set of doctor’s saddlebags from the early 19th century, filled with vials and packets of rudimentary remedies. There’s an X-ray table from 1929 with the imaging equipment hovering menacingly above. There are enough knives and saws to supply a horror movie.

The museum was started in the late 1890s and originally was pretty much a self-congratulatory shrine to physicians, who made up the main clientele early on. That changed after 1960, when medical historians took over and shifted the emphasis to how medicine relates to the culture of the time.

Few areas exemplify that cultural connection more than reproduction and birth control, and that’s one of the museum’s primary focuses.

(Fair warning: If you blush at the mention of intimate subjects, you might want to stop reading.)

The Dittrick Museum’s reproductive health collection started with the purchase of a French mannequin used around 1800 to train midwives, said Jim Edmonson, its chief curator. The collection grew until the museum opened an entire gallery devoted to childbirth in 2015.

The gallery explores how birth changed from a natural function often assisted by midwives to one orchestrated by medical professionals — “a pathological event to be corrected,” as Edmonson put it. Displays include an array of forceps, a collection of birthing chairs and two Barbie-size ivory figures that are actually anatomical models, the tops of their torsos removable to reveal their inner organs.

Of course, the flip side of childbirth is its prevention. That’s the focus of the museum’s Skuy Gallery, which explores the history of contraception. It’s named for Percy Skuy, who collected contraceptive devices during his career with Ortho Pharmaceutical Canada and gave them to the museum in 2004.

The gallery’s exhibits make apparent how uncomfortable our ancestors were with the topic of sex. It’s almost a wonder they produced descendants.

Then again, when you see some of the early forms of contraception, you understand how they did. Many of those attempts at birth control were sketchy at best and dangerous at worst.

Displays include a metal douching syringe about as subtle as an oil can; a display of sinister-looking, pronged intrauterine devices called stem pessaries; and an animal membrane condom that before 1840 cost $1, which at the time represented a whopping 7 percent of a typical week’s pay.

Packets of herbs such as pennyroyal and foxglove were sold with warnings telling pregnant women not to take them, which were really coded messages informing women that the products could be used to end unwanted pregnancies, Edmonson said.

One of the creepiest items is a Davis & Kidder Magneto-Electric Machine, a do-it-yourself shock therapy device from the mid-1800s, It was intended for “nervous diseases,” which presumably included those of a sexual nature.

Equally disturbing is a display on Lysol, which surprisingly was the top-selling feminine hygiene product from the 1930s to the 1960s. Who know women could use the same product to clean their toilets and their insides?

At the time, though, the term “feminine hygiene” wasn’t really about hygiene at all. That was more code language for contraception — except in the case of Lysol and other douching solutions, they were not only ineffective for that purpose, but potentially harmful.

Apparently, desperation knows no bounds when it comes to preventing pregnancy. One exhibit displays some of the most misguided birth control methods that have been tried, including candy bar wrappers used as condoms, vaginal suppositories made from crocodile dung and a glass jar that one Canadian woman used as a cervical cap. A doctor removed the shards.

Be glad you weren’t that patient.