A Personal History of Origins the Medical Museums
The Medical Museums Association, or MeMA, came about as a result of attending the first Congress of the European Association of Museums of the History of Medical Sciences, which in turn stemmed from longstanding personal and collegial contacts between the Wellcome Museum and the Dittrick Museum. This went back to 1927, when Howard Dittrick began corresponding with Sir Henry S. Wellcome, founder of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum. Dittrick visited London in 1928 and thereafter looked to Wellcome and his museum staff for guidance in medical museology. When it came to selecting a subject classification for artifacts, for example, Dittrick simply adopted the system developed by the Wellcome, by then the world's leading medical history museum. In this and so many other ways, the Wellcome was a great inspiration to Howard Dittrick.
Decades later, the two museums again interacted when Brian Bracegirdle made a tour of medical museums in the United States and Canada. Bracegirdle, Keeper of the Wellcome, was then busy preparing what became the Wellcome Museum of the History of Medicine at the Science Museum, which opened its doors to the public in 1981. He visited the Dittrick and conferred with Chief Curator Patsy Gerstner about the installation of the Wellcome galleries. A few years later, in 1983, Patsy invited Bracegirdle to give the first Rose and Anton Zverina lecture, entitled "Preserving our medical heritage: the Wellcome Museum of the History of Medicine, London." This inaugurated an annual lecture series that has brought distinguished curators and historians to the Dittrick over the past two decades.
Following this visit, Brian invited Patsy and me to attend the Second Symposium of the European Association of Museums of History of Medical Sciences (EAMHMS) to be held in London in 1984. Family illness prevented Patsy from making the trip, but I faced no such impediment and eagerly traveled to London to see the medical museums there and attend the EAMHMS. Approximately eighty medical museum directors and curators from throughout Europe and Britain gathered for three days to share their research, exhibits, and interpretive programs with colleagues. In addition, the Wellcome Trust really rolled out the red carpet, sponsoring banquets and receptions at the Wellcome Institute Library, the Royal College of Surgeons, and Apothecaries Hall. I returned to the U.S. much impressed by the caliber of these institutions, and in awe of the scholarly and professional attainments of our colleagues abroad. I shared these feelings with Patsy and we concurred that we should emulate the EAMHMS and form our own association here.
Patsy and I made a quick survey of museum and historical society directories and it soon emerged that perhaps as many as two hundred museums in the United States and Canada had medical, dental, pharmaceutical, or nursing collections. We certainly knew of the older, better-established collections, like the Mutter in Philadelphia, the Medical Sciences section of the National Museum of American History (Smithsonian Institution), and the Armed Forces Medical Museum in Washington. What came as a surprise was the considerable number of smaller institutions listing medical collections, ranging from local historical societies to medical libraries. We felt that the persons working in such places probably felt pretty isolated and would benefit from an association that could provide a forum for sharing ideas. Therefore, in October 1984, we created a composite mailing list and canvassed people working over fifty institutions, to sound them out about such an association. The response was overwhelmingly positive and that precipitated an organizational meeting of the "American Association of the History of Health Sciences Museums" in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on the evening of May 16, 1985.
We met in Chapel Hill simply because the American Association of the History of Medicine was convening there, and several of us would be in attendance at that conference. The meeting attracted about thirty people representing U.S. and Canadian museum collections. Upon this occasion Patsy Gerstner articulated her view of medical museums' mission and purpose: as resources for teaching the history of medicine; as a resources for historical research; and as interpreters of the medical past for the general public. Discussion ensued and a consensus emerged about issues of common concern: the need for collaborative ventures, loans and traveling exhibits, a newsletter, and the compilation of a list of appraisers. Other areas discussed included a subject access for collections, the disposal of duplicate items from collections, exhibit reviews, and the ever-present problem of funding.
We agreed to go forward with the Association, and to meet again when the AAHM met in Rochester, New York in 1986. During the intervening year Patsy Gerstner served as chairperson, while I acted as secretary-treasurer. We formed two committees; one to draw up a constitution, the other to prepare a program. The By-laws Committee consisted of Mark Dreyfuss (National Museum of American History), Dan Bennett (Armed Forces Medical Museum), Mary Ann Hoffman (Wright State University), and Nancy Zinn (University of California at San Francisco). I chaired the Program Committee and was joined by Michael Harris (National Museum of American History), Robin Kipps (Colonial Williamsburg), and Lucretia McClure (University of Rochester). In 1986 we also formally became the Medical Museums Association, or MeMA.
Our first year of existence fortuitously coincided with the emergence of Caduceus, a museum quarterly for the health sciences under the able hand of Glen Davidson of the Pearson Museum at Southern Illinois University. Glen, who headed the Department of Medical Humanities at SIU's School of Medicine, had inaugurated a quarterly journal that recruited authors from among "scholars who interpret the heritage of healing and the status of the health sciences today through the artifacts of health science museums, archives, and special library collections." [Vol I, No. 1, p.42] Glen was superbly organized and had a vision for Caduceus, and hence for our fledgling organization, that took our collective efforts to a higher level. For this endeavor he had the generous backing and support of Dr. Emmet F. Pearson, whose collection formed the basis for the museum at SIU. Caduceus provided a welcome forum for addressing common concerns and sharing them with others.