WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — Digging in a trove of artifacts from the Luzerne County Medical Society, Dr. Gerald Tracy found a 100-year-old letter with a modern shoe print on it.
It bears an Oxford letterhead, the last name Taylor in the salutation and a squiggly signature at the bottom as the only identifying information. It is helping fuel Tracy’s drive to share pieces of Northeast Pennsylvania’s medical history with the public.
Tracy, 76, a founder of what is now the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine, plans to open an exhibit at the medical school showcasing tools and documents from days long gone.
Local medical societies in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties loaned cases of documents, letters and artifacts for him to study and put on display.
Tracy, a medical professor at the school, is still in the early planning stages. He has no target date to open, but he knows it will be in the Scranton medical school on Pine Street.
The letter he found — the one with a shoe print on it — was sent in March 1917 by the renowned Dr. William Osler to Luzerne County Medical Society member Dr. Lewis Taylor
Doctors today call Osler the “father of modern medicine.” He was known to love medical libraries, and in his letter he applauds Taylor for his efforts to promote medical education in the northeast. Tracy said he believes Taylor started one of the first, if not the very first, medical libraries in the nation.
The letter reads: “It is really splendid to hear of the progress of your library, and I felt that I should like to do something to show my practical appreciation of what you have done for the profession of Luzerne County.
“The example is so good for the entire country, which helps in consolidating the profession and has an enormous value in promoting good work for the community at large.”
A century later, Tracy still sees the importance of Taylor’s mission, a medical museum and library for everyone.
“That’s the thing I’m most excited about — that we’re drawing a straight line, really, all the way back to Civil War times with this display,” he said.
Most of the items have been locked away for the last six years.
They reveal a primitive time in health care, one not too long ago, when medical devices made a doctor’s bag look more like a present-day mechanic’s road kit.
The collection contains a leather medicine pouch that unfolds to reveal corked glass vials secured by leather loops.
The vials hold tiny pills of gelsemium and phenacetin, both painkillers, and strychnine, now mostly used as poison but once used to treat a number of ailments.
He has old stethoscopes, a tracheotomy kit and an old blood pressure cuff.
A velvet-lined wooden case holds a Civil War-era dissection kit with about a dozen glistening, macabre instruments — blades, tourniquets and a saw — used to sever limbs and leave them behind on the battlefield.
In the early 1900s, county medical societies gave doctors a place to share ideas and connect with the larger state network at a time when communication was slower and a doctor’s job included more than medicine.
“They weren’t just our physicians,” said Tonyehn Verkitus, executive director for both medical societies in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties. “They were our friends. They were our confessors. They were our support system. They were our social services.”
Before the medical societies loaned their collections to Tracy, they were displayed in the Luzerne County society’s former library, a unique round building built in 1915, off South Franklin Street in Wilkes-Barre. Based on Osler’s letter, Tracy said he believes Taylor had a key part in building it and curating its collections. Taylor’s wife donated many of his old tools after he died in 1928.
After use of the building declined, medical society officials sold it to the Wyoming Valley Art League in 2011.
They packed up the artifacts and tucked them away in the basement until Tracy started poking around.
“I think seeing these books and these relics and knowing that people drove out to people’s homes and performed surgery reminds us why they’re here,” Verkitus said.
Men like Taylor and Osler lived during a time when drug maker Abbott boasted with laxative ad taglines that read “it does the job and never gripes” in the medical association’s publication, the Pennsylvania Medical Journal.
Those ads included companies marketing cod liver oil to improve general health and formaldehyde fumigators for disinfecting rooms through keyholes.
One short journal article from the early 1900s reported on a poll of doctors and suggested the automobile might be the “physician’s vehicle.” A number of doctors thought it was a quick, reliable way to get around town, and that the cost of buying a car was comparable to keeping horses.
Iris Johnston, Geisinger Commonwealth’s library assistant and de-facto aide to Tracy, hopes the exhibit will give people of all walks a glimpse at how today’s doctors stand on the shoulders of those who came before them through slow, incremental discoveries.
“It provides a little window for a layperson to see the tools used in the past,” she said. “You can connect that to what is used today and appreciate the amazing amount of study and effort that goes into medicine.”
As part of a companion exhibit, Dr. Gerald Tracy plans to highlight influential physicians who made significant contributions to medical study in Northeast Pennsylvania.
To start, he picked five doctors. One, Dr. Stanley Dudrick, still teaches at Misericordia University and the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine.
Dr. Benjamin Henry Throop — 1811-1897
Abraham Lincoln called on Dr. Benjamin Throop to aid injured troops during the Civil War. He opened the world’s first military field hospital of its kind, taking care of troops on the battlefield, Tracy said.
When he returned from war to Lackawanna County, he aspired to start the region’s first inpatient hospital. In 1871, he convinced the state legislature to grant the region $10,000 in seed money with the promise of an additional $100,000 for upkeep.
Throop made his fortunes after buying large tracts of land for coal development. After realizing that milk provided essential nutrients that could stanch an outsized mortality problem among newborn babies, he bought 50 Jersey cows and started a dairy farm and milk delivery service.
The borough of Throop is named after him.
Dr. William Osler — 1849-1919
The Canadian Dr. William Osler often is called the “father of modern medicine.”
Osler was a pioneer in medical training. He believed medical students should receive clinical training at the bedside, not strictly the classroom.
His seminal textbook, “The Principles and Practice of Medicine” was published in 1892. Tracy has a first edition of the book, which will be on display in the exhibit.
Osler adored medical libraries, and in a 1917 letter to Luzerne County Medical Society, applauded Dr. Lewis Taylor, the society’s president, for setting an example for the country by establishing what may have been the nation’s first medical library and museum in Wilkes-Barre.
“Let me know if I can help you in the way of books,” Osler wrote to conclude the letter.
The letter also will go on display.
Dr. Lewis Taylor — 1850-1928
Dr. Lewis Taylor began his career as a school principal at Franklin Grammar School and Wilkes-Barre High School, both in Wilkes-Barre. Later, he attended medical school and became an influential physician.
He was president of the Luzerne County Medical Society in 1885, of the Lehigh Valley Medical Society in 1891, and later vice president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society twice.
Tracy credits Taylor with starting one of the first, if not the very first, medical libraries in the country, off South Franklin Street in Wilkes-Barre. It included artifacts and books that anyone could read. He was devoted to advancing medicine and helping people learn about it. Medical society journals show Taylor was a regular contributor who wrote and frequently commented on medical papers with his colleagues.
His wife donated his equipment to the medical society upon his death. Among other things, his stethoscope and a leather pouch filled with medicine vials were part of the Luzerne County Medical Society’s display.
Dr. Harold Foss — 1883-1967
Dr. Harold Foss trained with Drs. William and Charles Mayo of the Mayo Clinic before landing in Danville. He helped design the George F. Geisinger Memorial Hospital there, which changed its name in 1961 to the Geisinger Medical Center.
Foss toured the United States and Europe to study other hospitals before construction began. At age 32, he became the first surgeon-in-chief and superintendent at the hospital. His title upon retirement in 1956 was chief of staff, according to one article.
Geisinger’s flagship hospital had ties to Scranton. It’s interesting, Tracy noted, that starting in 1917, two years after it was built, the Scranton Trust Co. was named trustee over the Danville hospital and Tracy said the company held strategic control over its finances.
Dr. Stanley Dudrick — 1935-present
One of the most important breakthroughs of modern surgery was made by the Nanticoke physician Dr. Stanley Dudrick.
He is known as the “father of intravenous feeding,” having pioneered the method to deliver key nutrients to a patient intravenously when typical feeding by mouth is not an option.
He was a professor of surgery at Pennsylvania University and helped start the University of Texas Medical School’s surgery department. There, he was chief of surgery at the university’s hospital. He also served as the surgery department chairman at Pennsylvania Hospital and later filled the same role at Yale University School of Medicine.
Dudrick is medical director at Misericordia University and a professor of surgery at the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine.
Information from: The Times-Tribune, http://thetimes-tribune.com/