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Case’s Dittrick Medical History Museum receives world’s largest historical birth control device collection

Photo: Percy Skuy, left, sits with curator James EdmonsonA donation of more than 650 artifacts and 150 books and ephemera in the Percy Skuy Collection on the History of Contraception—the world’s largest assemblage of historical birth control products—arrived on December 1 at Case Western Reserve University’s Dittrick Medical History Center.

Until now, Janssen-Ortho, the donor and a company specializing in women’s health, housed the collection in its Toronto, Ontario headquarters.

Over the past 40 years, Percy Skuy, the former CEO of Ortho Pharmaceutical, assembled the collection to illustrate talks he gave on birth control.

“These artifacts really tell an important sociological story of human motivation to want to limit family size over hundreds and thousands of years in different cultures and in different countries,” said Skuy.

Photo: The collection on displayWhat he found over the years was that birth control methods emerged in varied ways from folk medicine remedies like women using crocodile dung with its high salt content that acted as a natural spermicide to the high-tech developments of intrauterine devices (I.U.D.) and birth control pills.

“Equally important is the recognition that with the limited knowledge people had, once motivated, they had to use what was readily available around them and some creative approaches were taken,” said Skuy. “Some were useless, some harmful and some could probably have shown a reasonable degree of effectiveness.”

“The Percy Skuy Collection provides the university with a unique vehicle for a variety of creative and innovative learning experiences at Case,” said James Edmonson, chief curator at the Dittrick Medical History Center in the Allen Memorial Medical Library. “The donation will become a catalyst and center piece for important research, classes and study of health and social issues surrounding contraception.”

Public exhibit

To celebrate the collections arrival, the public can view the exhibit in the Reading Room on the second floor of the Allen Memorial Medical Library, 11000 Euclid Avenue, through the end of March 2005. In addition to birth control devices, it also has books, birth control marketing materials and audiotapes and videos of interviews with the collection’s founder.

After March, a museum advisory committee of representatives from the community and faculty will work with Edmonson to design a permanent exhibit for the museum on the library’s third floor. The new exhibit joins other artifacts and rare medical books in the Dittrick’s collection. In addition, plans are underway for an international symposium and a virtual exhibit online. The Dittrick is part of the Case College of Arts and Sciences and tells the story of medicine and its major developments.

"Case has exceptionally distinctive programs in history of technology and history of medicine,” said Mark Turner, dean of Case’s College of Arts and Sciences. “The Dittrick museum specializes in their intersection: the history of medical technology. It is no wonder that Percy Skuy has chosen Case over many competing institutions as the repository for the premier collection of contraceptive technology.”

A virtual exhibit of the collection also will go online in conjunction with the construction of the permanent exhibit in order to share the wealth of information from the collection with people around the world. Invited guest lecturers and a symposium also are being planned as part of the launch of the permanent exhibit.

Because the gift comes with no exhibiting restrictions, the Dittrick is free to design and use the items in ways it envisions for the university setting.

Edmonson believes the permanent exhibit will be popular among students, researchers and the public. A museum setting, he said, is ideal for exploring sensitive topics.

“Ultimately we will have the opportunity to present the story of contraception in a broader way than the current display is now constituted to do,” says Edmonson. “We want the exhibit to encompass social issues, medical concerns about women’s health and a variety of tangential and related subjects that create a context for understanding the significance of these different means of contraception.”

The origin of the collection

Skuy, a leader in the pharmaceutical field of contraceptive technology, became an avid collector by happenstance. In 1965, as a product manager for Ortho Pharmaceutical in Canada, he was invited to give a talk on modern birth control to a group of pharmacists in Hamilton, Ontario. He started the talk with interesting stories on the history of birth control.

When invited to speak again, he was asked to tell more about birth control’s history. At that point, he began to search for items to illustrate those talks. By word of mouth from physicians or business sources and personal communications, he tracked down an array of items from folk medicines to modern pharmaceutical devices.

In 2000, Skuy began to look for a permanent home for the collection. His search brought him to the Dittrick, established in 1898 as a part of the Cleveland Medical Library Association and one of the five leading medical museums in the United States.

For more information about the Dittrick collection or this new exhibit, call 216-368-3648 or visit


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Case is among the nation's leading research institutions. Founded in 1826 and shaped by the unique merger of the Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University, Case is distinguished by its strengths in education, research, service, and experiential learning. Located in Cleveland, Case offers nationally recognized programs in the Arts and Sciences, Dental Medicine, Engineering, Law, Management, Medicine, Nursing, and Social Work.