Museum traces region’s medical history

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YOUNGSTOWN – There is no sign in front of the building to advertise what’s inside.

At the front door, a printed card gives the hours, and asks visitors to ring the doorbell for admittance.

But once inside the door, there is no mistaking where you are.

What was once an office building, and is now often mistaken for another renovated classroom building, is in reality the Rose Melnick Medical Museum at Youngstown State University.

A lot to see. Even though the museum has been open for only a a month, and its display areas are far from complete, there is a whole lot to see.

The museum has in its collection more than 10,000 artifacts, and the collection is growing daily.

This is one interesting place. And its founder, Dr. John Melnick, is sure it will begin to attract its natural audience, which is everyone.

Everyone who walks through the door has already been involved with medicine in one way or another. That personal involvement gives the paraphernalia of medicine’s past an extra tug.

Seeing the saw and clamps that were used when a 19th century doctor had no choice other than to amputate, or examining the 18th century flanges that were pounded into blood veins in order to bleed patients, it isn’t hard to feel a sympathetic twinge.

According to the museum’s director and curator S. Victor Fleischer, it is the “gory stuff” that people really want to see.

Fleischer said there are less than 10 legitimate medical museums in the United States, and one of oldest and best is at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Which begs the question, why should a second medical museum be developed in northeast Ohio, in Youngstown?

Melnick’s dream. The museum has been Melnick’s the dream since he started investigating local medical history for the Mahoning County Medical Society in 1972.

Asked to become editor of the society’s bulletin that year, when the society was celebrating its centennial, he agreed if he could change the usual format and print a series of monthly articles on the history of medicine in the Mahoning Valley.

He started to research the topic, began to collect artifacts, and he eventually wrote books.

But what he had never been able to accomplish was to establish a real medical museum. He incorporated the name 15 years ago, and spent time looking for a site.

The museum remained packed in hundreds of crates in buildings he rented to store them, in his basement, and later at the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine at Rootstown, which he considered as a site for a time.

“But no one goes out there except the students,” Melnick said.

Local history. Besides, his artifacts were from the Mahoning Valley, gathered from 75 to 80 doctors as they retired from practice.

He also got a lot from South Side Hospital where he had practiced as a radiologist, including the portable X-ray machine that had been used in his department during the days when they still took it out to people’s homes to take the X-rays.

Two years ago, Melnick reached an agreement with Youngstown State. He agreed to purchase the old IBM building on campus and to put his entire collection there to use as the core of a medical museum. The university agreed to develop the collection into a museum, and to run the museum and provide staff.

Melnick had already collected a variety of major pieces of local medical history, including an entire X-ray machine Dr. Erhard Weltman, had packed up in crates and brought it with him when he fled Nazi Germany in 1933.

Iron lung. Melnick also acquired an iron lung used during the 1950s polio epidemic.

He had been storing it at the medical school in Rootstown, however, and they had became fond of it. They use it as the central display in their library, and didn’t want to let it go.

Fleischer said he went on the hunt for another for the museum. He contacted University Hospital in Cleveland, which he heard still has some in storage. They said they had three, but wouldn’t let them go – just in case they might be needed someday.

He finally found one the Resperonics Co. had stored in a warehouse in Pittsburgh and was glad to donate.

It has become the centerpiece of a history of polio display that Fleischer hopes to develop.

Medical instruments. The major part of Melnick’s collection was the several thousand medical instruments he collected. He also more than 2,000 books, a slide collection he created for various presentations, and some original documents, including diaries from local doctors from the early days of Youngstown through modern times.

The most important of these documents are the daybooks and ledgers kept by Dr. Henry Manning, one of the three original doctors in Youngstown, from 1835 to 1842.

The daybooks include his case notes, notes on where he made calls, who his patients were, what his treatments were, and what he charged.

Early local doctors. It will also be part of an exhibition going up in the near future on the early local doctors – Manning, Dr. Charles Dutton and Dr. Timothy Woodbridge. Dutton’s medical kit will be on loan from the Mahoning County Historical Society for the exhibit.

There is another doctor important in Mahoning Valley medical history who will also be included somewhere in museum displays, probably in an exhibit on medical transportation.

Dr. Carlos Booth in 1898 was the first doctor in the country to use an automobile for his medical practice.

A horse and buggy had run away and injured his wife. He decided they weren’t safe. He couldn’t buy a car at that time, so he built one for himself.

Medical offices. Major exhibits also include a series of recreated medical offices.

Fleischer said Gib James, who has been involved with the historical village at the Canfield Fair for many years, had amassed a large collection of medical furniture, much of it originally from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.

From this collection, Fleischer has been able to authenticate and duplicate two doctors’ offices, from 1905 and from 1930. Everything in these rooms is historically correct, from the side furnishings, to the wallpaper, to the kind of flooring.

There are also two dental offices, from 1895 and 1935.

The 1895 display has a turn-of-the-century dental chair and an original drill. Fleischer said he is still looking for a dental cabinet from that era. He saw one on e-Bay recently, but it sold for $10,000.

Industrial medicine. Another display being developed is a recreation of an industrial clinic. The museum has much of the equipment that was once in the clinic at General Fireproofing.

Fleischer hopes to develop industrial medicine into a major area for the museum.

He said he knows large hospital clinics did exist at all of the local steel mills, and the collection does have a few splints that came from these clinics, but little is known about what medicine was practiced in these company clinics.

Another display still being put together is an early 20th century pharmacy.

Nursing history. Nurses uniforms, especially those from the three hospital schools of nursing, are on display, but the collection is still being developed. Fleischer said he is still trying locate what might be in people’s attics.

And what will become one of the museum’s major displays is still being organized. In the back room, sorted into specialty but not yet fully identified, are the thousands of medical instruments that Melnick collected.

With the help of a student assistant, Fleischer is authenticating the instruments in old medical catalogs.

Fleischer said most of the museum’s material is from the 20th century. He will be looking to fill in the holes with items from the 19th century and earlier.

Looking for leeches. One piece he would really like to acquire, he said, is a leech jar to go with the blood letting equipment. But few still exist and he has not been able to find a museum-quality artifact that could be acquired.

Melnick said when he began collecting artifacts, he realized that much of what was being used, even in his own practice, would soon disappear.

If it isn’t preserved, he emphasized, people would never understand what medicine was like, even in the recent past.

The Rose Melnick Medical Museum is located on Wick Avenue on the YSU campus, directly across the street from the Arms Museum of Local History. It is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

There is currently a special exhibit organized by the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia at the time of the Republican National Convention, “When the President is the Patient.”

For additional information call the information line at 330-742-4661, or Fleischer at 330-742-4662, or visit the museum’s Web site at melnick-museum.ysu.edu.

(You can contact Jackie Cummins at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at jcummins@farmanddairy.com.)

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