Medical library examines past

The exhibit “Medicine at Work” features 18th and 19th century medical tools.
The exhibit “Medicine at Work” features 18th and 19th century medical tools. Photo by Kamaria Greenfield.

Chisels, retractors and a hook used to wrench out teeth are just some of the artifacts on display at the Yale School of Medicine’s Cushing and Whitney Medical Library that might make visitors glad to live in the 21st century.

Titled “Medicine at Work,” the exhibit seeks to help library visitors understand the evolution of medicine over time by displaying a variety of instruments, books, fees and manuals related to medical work through the past five centuries, though it focuses primarily on tools used in the 18th and 19th centuries. The exhibit opened on Sept. 22 and will continue running through Jan. 13.

Showcased in the foyer and rotunda of the library, the items on display are drawn from the library’s extensive medical history collections. The contents of the exhibit can also be viewed online through the library’s website.

“The exhibits create an awareness of medicine’s rich past and of the library’s rich historical collections which document and illuminate it,” said Susan Wheeler, curator for prints and drawings at the library.

Visitors may find parts of the exhibit almost humorous, with many of the instruments and their uses relics of a time when medical knowledge was far more limited. One device, called a Perkins Tractor, was used to ease discomfort by diverting “noxious electrical fluids” that supposedly caused pain.

Although the antiquated saws and probes may make visitors thankful for the state of modern medicine, a list of fees from the 19th century, published by the Western Texas Medical Association, might leave those without insurance longing for simpler times. According to the chart, a consultation was expected to cost $2, while an operation for a cataract could run anywhere from $30 to $200. According to Health Care Blue Book, a free online tool that helps show consumers fair prices for health care services, an operation for cataracts today might cost between $3,000 and $4,000.

While visitors to the library might be interested in the exhibit, medical students who frequent the library appear to pay it little mind.

“They always have exhibits here,” said Don Hart, a second-year resident in Emergency Medicine, while walking through the library. “People are looking all the time, but I’m not sure they’re students.”

Hart said he thinks the exhibits are frequently shown to tours for prospective medical students.

Dexter Barks, who works at the circulation desk at the library, said he has not received any feedback on the exhibit but added that people “do pay attention” to the exhibits.

In addition to the exhibit on the work of medicine, a concurrent exhibit called “Nurses” is on display in the hallway outside the library.

Yale’s medical school was founded in 1810 and counted Nathan Smith, Benjamin Silliman and Jonathan Knight among its first faculty members.

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