March 14, 2019

Photo Essay: A Repository of Cures and Quackery, In Times of War and Peace (Closed—Updated for 2021)

[Last updated 10/9/21 10:20 PM PT—The museum lost its lease in 2019 and is currently closed, with its collection in storage in Redlands, California. It plans to relocate.]

When I was actively applying for the Peace Corps more than 10 years ago, they made me take care of a few medical things before they'd approve my application.

My dentist was thrilled that something finally made me relent and agree to gum graft surgery to fix the exposed root of one tooth on the bottom right of my mouth.

Since 28 months abroad might've put me somewhere exotic—and without easy access to Western healthcare—Peace Corps also required I get inoculated for certain diseases I wouldn't normally have to worry about.

One of them was polio.

I was anxious because my mother had been crippled by polio as a child—and even as an adult, the virus continued to ravage through her body instead of remaining dormant. I knew the virus contained in the vaccine was supposedly "inactive," but I wasn't thrilled with the thought of even getting near it.

Poliomyelitis had been officially extinct in the U.S. since I was four years old.

But just as I submitted to the periodontal surgery, I rolled up my sleeve, let my primary care physician stick me in the arm, and tried to ignore the muscle aches and mild paralysis (real or imagine) that I felt in its wake.

Given that experience, it was a little crazy for me to see a Drinker-Collins iron lung in person at the Southern California Medical Museum (the only museum of its kind in SoCal), where it stands as the collection's centerpiece.

Donated by Rancho Los Amigos (whose polio ward was the premiere facility for polio patients in 1950s SoCal), the 500-pound respiratory contraption is now pretty much obsolete, replaced by modern ventilators and breathing tubes.

The rest of the museum contains exhibits on surgical tools and contraptions less relevant to my personal life, but perhaps no less disturbing—bone drills, scoops, and spoons of the Greco-Roman and Pre-Columbian eras, for starters.

Some of the older implements shocking look the same as they do today. Somehow we haven't improved on scissors.

Wartime necessitated quick fixes to ease pain (or knock out the wounded entirely), stop bleeding, extract bullets, and sometimes even amputate a limb...

...for both people and animals, sometimes right there on the battlefield (particularly during the Civil War).

Medical advances in the last two centuries didn't just involve learning about the human body's form and function at the cellular level.

Emerging technology gave rise to all sorts of machinery—some of which, like the "Violet Ray Generator" or the "Oscilloclast"—weren't as revered as the iron lung and didn;t last nearly as long in active use.

Who knows what some of these things were supposed to do—or actually did?

Desperate patients with a variety of ailments submitted to these crazy gadgets—and often got burned, both literally and figuratively.

But when you're sick, in pain, or otherwise compromised, you'll try any crazy thing that promises to make you better.

And are any of those electrodes, probes, and doo-dads really any more barbaric than the way we still hack into sick people's bodies and cut out whatever ails them?

Some of the old diseases may have gone away in developed countries—but not because of how we treated them.

The "cure" usually comes in the form of prevention—like the polio vaccine.

Surgeons are still using metal clamps, tongs, and even staples to "repair" the patients they're operating on, despite the fact that our bodies tend to reject them.

Only now instead of silk, our sutures are made of polyester or maybe polypropylene (a.k.a. plastic).

Besides that gum graft surgery for the Peace Corps (which, by the way, didn't ultimately accept me anyway), a bit of whitening, and a wisdom tooth extraction, I've been largely spared the dental work that makes most people dread being sent to "the chair" (in their dentist's office, that is).

I've never had a cavity that needed to be filled.

And after I had to have my gum grafted, I became incredibly diligent about brushing and flossing.

I've never needed to be dilated "back there"...

...and while I've suffered from seasonal allergies my whole life, smoking cigarettes (even herbal ones) only ever made them worse.

Looking at this collection, it's easy to judge patients of the past.

You think, "Geez, people will try anything!"

Of course, now we're finding out that some of these herbal and homeopathic remedies actually do work.

Maybe there really is a cure out there.

Maybe somebody's already found it.

And if not, you can't blame them for trying.

Modern medicine is still based on trial and error.

Sometimes you feel better (even if it's just the placebo effect)...

...and sometimes you get poisoned.

There's a fine line between pharmacology and toxicity.

That why when I'm in doubt, I try whiskey first. (And its inclusion in the medical museum collection just serves to vindicate me more.)

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Photo Essay: The Time Capsule That Is Lanterman House (Updated for 2018)
Halloween at the Dead Doctor's Mansion
Christmas at the Doctors House, Saved From Demolition and Moved to Brand Park

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