Medical museum exhibits offer a look at vintage equipment

By Leonard Crist


It wasn’t easy being the first female doctor from the Mahoning Valley.

Born in Trumbull County in 1845, Helen Betts started practicing medicine in 1873, but was never considered an equal of her male doctor peers. They called her Miss Betts or Miss Dr. Betts, but never simply Dr. Betts.

After practicing in the Valley only two years, she left for Europe and later, California.

Cassandra Nespor, objects curator at the Rose Melnick Medical Museum, considers Dr. Betts a highlight in local medical history.

“From her time period in 1873, to be a woman doctor from this area, I think, is pretty remarkable,” Nespor said recently while giving a tour of the museum.

The museum, in Melnick Hall on the campus of Youngstown State University, is a little-known addition to “Museum Row,” the brief stretch of Wick Avenue that also features the Butler Museum of American Art, the McDonough Museum of Art and the Arms Family Museum of Local History.

The museum was founded in 2001 by the late Dr. John Melnick, a Youngstown radiologist and local historian who also avidly collected vintage medical equipment. Dr. Melnick died in 2008 at age 79.

Brian K. Brennan, a university librarian and assistant archivist who worked at the museum prior to Nespor’s hiring in 2008, said Dr. Melnick provided matching funds for the university to purchase the building that later became Melnick Hall, on the condition that the first floor house his medical museum and be named in honor of his mother, Rose.

The museum’s displays focus largely on medical instrumentation, re-creations of doctors’ and dentists’ offices, unusual medical equipment and X-ray machines. Admission is free and open to the public. The museum most frequently hosts grade-school tours and specialized tours for nursing schools and campus classes. The museum’s most prized possession is a working iron lung, part of its polio exhibit.

The iron lung, a large, yellow metal cylinder with shiny chrome portholes, was one of Dr. Melnick’s favorite items, Nespor said. Essentially an old-fashioned respirator, the iron lung worked by differing the pressure inside the chamber so the patient’s lungs would go up and down. “If someone got polio bad enough that they were paralyzed from the neck down, this machine would help them breathe until they got better,” Nespor said. “They might be in it for a couple of weeks, or more, if they had a very severe case.

“There are spots for nurses to put their hands in to change your bed pan. But that’s it, you just lay for weeks.”

Next to the iron lung are displays on Youngstown’s polio immunization program and on presidential health-care history. President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously had polio as a child, which left him unable to stand on his own. At the time, however, he kept it away from the public, and the press never took pictures of him in a wheelchair.

One area of the museum Nespor doesn’t talk about on her tours with grade-schoolers is the display on “gratifying gadgets.”

“These are weird,” she said with a hint of embarrassment in her voice as she passed the display. “These are prostate-gland warmers, rectal dilators and vibrators. These were part of an early 20th-century movement to increase your vitality and energy.”

Nespor pointed to one especially large gadget that barely resembled its modern equivalent, and exclaimed, “Look at the motor on this thing!”

Brennan said his favorite item in the museum is the prostate warmer.

“What makes it funny is knowing that sticking this thing where the sun don’t shine isn’t going to do anything for your prostate,” Brennan said. “It’s such an absurd contraption. It makes me laugh every time I look at the thing. And it gets a lot of laughs during the tours.”

Even though many items in the museum are laughably ineffectual, unsanitary or even dangerous, Nespor said she’s learned not to be critical of the past.

“It’s so easy to think of the people who practiced medicine in the early days of our country, in the 1700s and 1800s, as people who weren’t very intelligent and or who believed in ridiculous things. But they didn’t know any better,” Nespor said. “So I try to look at it with an very objective view point because, I think, when people look at what we’re doing 100 years from now, they would probably say the same thing.”

Brennan said medical history has become “especially poignant” today because of the national health-care reform debate.

“It’s museums like the Melnick that give people proper understanding of the medical profession,” Brennan said. “It’s very important. I think it’s a wonderful addition to the museums here in Youngstown.”

The NewsOutlet is a joint media venture by student and professional journalists and is a collaboration of Youngstown State University, WYSU radio and The Vindicator.

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