I love studying the history of medicine, especially the pre-anesthesia, pre-antibiotic era. Fleming, Osler, Rush, Avicenna, Blackwell, Curie, Pasteur are all familiar friends to me now. So, it’s no surprise to me that nuggets of medical history find me when we are on vacation. Perhaps I find them (moth to the flame), but that is another story. My non-medical husband has gotten used to this phenomenon. He knows to slow down and relax; I’ll be while, reading every plaque and soaking up any unexpected medical information when it appears. I think he appreciates my grin of discovery, when an unexpected medical history diorama, display, monument or museum appears.
Last summer, we vacationed on Mackinac Island for the first time. Charmed by the horse-drawn and bicycle lifestyle, we visited the old fort. Important during the American Revolution and the War of 1812, Fort Mackinac happens to have a lovely recreation of a military infirmary, detailing medical treatment from 1780 to 1895. In a fascinating time-warp, the old infirmary, with soldier manikins lying in bed, is correct for the period, and a video shown on the back wall has current-day doctors strolling from bed to bed, discussing the ailments of the time, treatments used then, their efficacy, and what modern day doctors would do.
Imagine my surprise when, walking down the hill from the fort to visit the old general store, we found a very well-done one room museum dedicated to Dr. William Beaumont and his patient Alexis St. Martin. We’ve all studied these two; in 1822 Alexis sustained a close-range gunshot to the abdomen, which surprisingly, he survived. He ended up with a gastrocutaneous fistula, which Dr Beaumont used to do research on stomach acids and the process of digestion. Alexis was paid by Dr Beaumont; allowing the good doctor to put food on a string into his stomach through the fistula, and remove it for later examination appears to have been poor Alexis’ only source of income. He was apparently not always a willing subject. It gives informed consent a whole new meaning!
More recently, we were strolling near the Sorbonne in Paris and came upon the Curie Institute. Madame Marie Curie’s famous research lab and office (now thankfully decontaminated of its high levels of radiation!) are there, along with a small museum showing her instruments, her early research on isolating radium, and her awards. Did you know she was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize and the only woman to receive two? The office and lab are small, plain, and unremarkable looking, but what a change her discoveries made for the world! The displays of radium containing products sold to the public (not by the Curies) as health cures (Radium water! Radium makeup! Radium toothpaste! Radium glow-in-the-dark dishes!) are horrifying and a good cautionary tale about the danger of being an early adopter of new technologies.
A day later, in the Loire Valley, we visited the stunning Chateau of Chenonceaux. Built between 1490 and 1576, it was the home of royal drama for Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de Medici, King Francis II, the Duke of Bourbon, and others. It is gorgeously restored, with rare tapestries, period furniture and has expansive gardens, stables, and outbuildings. Given my inner magnet for medical history, I was not surprised to find a small re-creation of the military hospital that Chenonceaux became during the 4 years of WWI. Over 2000 soldiers were cared for there, with modern medical equipment, including an efficient operating room and one of France’s first x-ray machines. The owner of the Chateau at the time, Gaston Menier (His money came from chocolate, among other things), bore all the associated expenses and his wife ran the hospital.
The list goes on and on. Art museums, galleries, wineries, stores, small towns, resorts. All have offered up surprise tidbits of medical history for my delight. I can’t wait to see what’s next! Do you have suggestions for me?