See health care’s evolution, from leeches to lasers

Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

The names sound ominous and disturbing, the sort of things that cause involuntary cringing: Tonsil guillotine. Dental screws. Excavators. A medicine chest containing such “cures” as turpentine.

In an age of microsurgery, minimally invasive medical procedures, and reliable anesthesia, some of the exhibits at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics Medical Museum are a reminder that not too long ago, the cure was often more painful than the disease, if not necessarily worse.*

* This was, after all, an era when “puking” was an actual medical term. There’s something about “induced vomiting” that sounds so much less Friday-night-party.

The point is driven home further by photos on the wall that show nurses holding down patients while doctors perform whatever early medical procedure they’re performing, a procedure that is probably far less traumatic today.

Adrienne Drapkin, museum director.

“I’ve heard many people looking at these exhibits and saying how much better off we are today,” says Adrienne Drapkin, the museum’s director. “Then when you look ahead 100 years, you wonder what will people think about health care today. Will they look at lasers the way we look at lancets?*”

* A cutting instrument used in bloodletting.

The free-admission museum is housed on the eighth floor of the Pappajohn Pavilion and dates to 1928, when Dr. John McCormick MD ’98* put out a call to his classmates to send their used or outdated medical equipment to the University.

* That’s 1898.

Taking the donations as a start and adding its own obsolete equipment along the way, the hospital’s collection has reached more than 4,000 artifacts. The museum opened to the public in 1989; Drapkin says one of the museum’s goals is to show what health care was like during the state’s first 100 years, and how much it’s changed since.

One exhibit notes that when the University was given permission to open the College of Medicine in 1868,* it received a noticeably cold welcome from residents of Iowa City who feared an increase in grave robbery as med students looked for corpses on which to study anatomy and practice the surgical arts.

* It opened in 1870 in South Hall, sharing space with the University registrar and offices for student literary societies. South Hall burned to the ground in 1901.

Sure enough, in 1870, the grave of recently deceased Iowa Citian Mary D. Herrick was dug up in Oakland Cemetery and her body exhumed. Nobody knew for sure who copped the corpse but suspicion immediately fell upon the medical school. After three days of public uproar, Herrick was quietly returned to her resting place, though minus a face and filled with preserving chemicals.

Eventually, it was confirmed that medical students did dig up Herrick’s body and used it for medical research, leading to the resignation of the anatomy professor who planned the caper. The medical school soon established more reputable and publicly accepted methods of obtaining bodies for research—methods that didn’t require med students to use a shovel as well as a scalpel.

Museum exhibits show how medicine has evolved with developments in scientific research and technology. Even as recently as 100 years ago, bleeding was a frequent cure-all; doctors prescribed herbal remedies;* and homeopathy was embraced by the medical establishment.**

* Among the items in the museum’s apothecary collection are Pink Pills for Pale People, which treats “thin, impoverished blood,” and Dr. Schop’s Night Cope, which helps to prevent such maladies as falling of the womb. In a neat bit of irony, Drapkin points out that many doctors are again turning to herbal remedies for their patients, as research shows that many plants have medicinal qualities after all, though it’s not likely any of them will have names like Pink Pills for Pale People.

** UI had a homeopathy college that closed in 1920. Like herbal remedies, homeopathy is also enjoying renewed legitimacy with some health care practitioners.

“Barbers were still performing medical procedures into the late 19th century,” Drapkin says, pointing to a German language sign that once hung outside a barber shop in Iowa City, its ornate, high Gothic letters advertising haircuts, leech-setting, and bloodletting. “Doctors did the best they could with what they had. But before the invention of penicillin, they had little they could prescribe to help their patients—it was mostly fresh air, opiates and hydrotherapy.”

Then there’s the iron lung, a feared symbol of polio that for generations conjured nightmares of being trapped for hours or days inside the machine, trading freedom for the ability to breathe. In the museum, the robin’s egg blue tube is one of the first things a person sees when they enter the gallery. Behind it, a wall-sized photo shows a dozen iron lungs scattered about haphazardly in a ward, each with a child’s head poking out one end, like a scene from a science fiction movie.

Today, it’s literally a museum exhibit, a symbol of how technology can be put to use preventing disease and not just reacting to it. Drapkin herself is an example of this, as she was among the first children inoculated with the Salk vaccine in 1953. “It was third grade and all of my classmates were lined up and started shaking,” she says.

The vaccine worked—a card with the iron lung shows how the number of patients with polio treated at the University dropped off a cliff in the late 1950s, once antipolio vaccines were widely used. In the mid-1950s, thousands of children were treated each year; by the late 1960s, it was zero.

The Medical Museum is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m.