SBU showcases centuries-old medical tools

From left to right, Kathryn Curran, director of

From left to right, Kathryn Curran, director of Suffolk County Historical Society; David Mills; and his sister Barbara Russell, Brookhaven town historian, at Medicine on Long Island Past & Present, an exhibition of the late Dr. Roswell Sherman Mills' collection of antique medical equipment. David Mills and Barbara Russell are the children of Dr. Roswell Sherman Mills, whose collection is on view at Stony Brook University Hospital Health Sciences Library. (Sept. 13, 2012) (Credit: Heather Walsh)

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Infectious diseases now banished as a result of vaccines were often major medical emergencies a century ago, forcing doctors to saddle up or board a buggy, even in the middle of the night.

And so it was when someone sought out a doctor to treat a child in the throes of diphtheria.

Lacking effective pharmaceuticals, doctors of the day had an ingenious, though painful approach.

"They used a surgical kit," said Dr. Carla Keirns, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook University School of Medicine, referring to the special scalpels, scissors and other tools tucked in a special wood box.

Keirns, also a professor of medical history, is a curator of a new exhibit of 19th and 20th century medical instruments collected by the late Dr. Roswell Sherman Mills, a Setauket family physician who practiced medicine from the 1940s through the early '80s. He died in 2009 at the age of 94, having treated an estimated 55,000 patients on Long Island.

The exhibit of 40 medical instruments is on display for the 2012-13 academic year in the Stony Brook University Health Sciences Library.

"Diphtheria would infect the throat," Keirns added. "Patients would get a gray membrane in the back of the throat and suffocate. Back in the day, doctors would go to the child's home, which was the way medicine was practiced then.

"The inflamed tissue would be opened up so the child wouldn't suffocate. This was an emergency procedure."

Before the development of the first vaccine in the 1920s, diphtheria was a major cause of death in children throughout the United States and worldwide. Known as the "strangling angel of children," the toxin-producing bacterial infection was easily spread through close contact, and the grayish-black membrane that formed tonsil-to-tonsil was a tough fibrous growth that blocked the body's airways.

Instruments in the Mills collection reveal a curious assemblage of bygone tools that were routinely carried into people's houses: umbilical scissors that date to the 1940s; a metal mask from the late 1800s used to deliver ether, an anesthetic; and a sobering set of vintage tools used for amputations.

Also showcased is a small ornate instrument called a vapo-cresolene lamp, which looks like an antique candleholder and seems as if it were originally intended for decorative purposes. But the device was designed in the 1880s as an instrument to treat whooping cough.

The lamp is yet another reminder that medicine of the past was a completely different enterprise compared with the profession as it is practiced today.

Keirns describes her first response to the Mills collection as "a kid in the candy store moment."

Barbara Russell, Mills' daughter and historian for the Town of Brookhaven, said her father began collecting medical instruments in the 1960s and obtained many of the items from retiring physicians and dentists who had used them in their daily practices.

She and her family donated the collection to the Suffolk County Historical Society, whose principals initiated the idea of the exhibit.

Russell noted that her father would be pleased to see his collection on display.

"He called himself an accumulator, not a collector," said Russell, who added that her job as a historian has obvious genetic roots -- getting close to the past, she said, is in her DNA.

Her father was a founding member of the Historical Society of Greater Port Jefferson and an early member of the Three Village Historical Society.

Keirns noted that while Mills was still in practice he urged the administrators of St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson to keep an old iron lung on its premises as both a reminder of the frightening era of polio -- and the hospital's role in the fight against it.

An iron lung is a now-obsolete airtight chamber into which all but a patient's head is enclosed. The machine forces the lungs to inhale and exhale.

"This is a world-class collection," said Keirns, comparing the instruments to items in the Wellcome Collection at the Science Museum of London and medical instruments displayed at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in suburban Washington, D.C.

"This collection is in that kind of class in terms of the extent, variety, quality and age of the materials," she said.

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