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Monday, Aug. 4, 2008 10:09 am

Pearson’s legacy

SIU’s med school is home to unusual collection of memorabilia

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One of Pearson’s crown jewels: The Depression-era Lewis Drugs store, from Canton, Ill.
PHOTO BY ROLAND KLOSE

It's not unusual to find a skeleton in a medical school, but you can't say the same about an intact Depression-era drugstore, antique bloodletting apparatuses, or a 19th-century dentist's fainting couch.

All of these items can be found at Springfield's Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.

SIU-SM is one of the few medical schools in America to house a medical history museum. This one was established in 1977 and named three years later for the man who envisioned it — Dr. Emmet F. Pearson.

Pearson, an internist who studied in St. Louis, came to Springfield to practice in 1933 "because the Depression was on and most [of] the places I looked around were in more depths of despair than Springfield," he said in a 1983 oral-history interview with the University of Illinois at Springfield.

He practiced here (except for a brief stint in Chicago as the hotel doctor at the Palmer House) for 60 years, according to his oral history.

"Dr. Pearson had two things that led him to seek the creation of the [SIU-SM] museum," says Phillip V. Davis, SIU-SM associate professor and deputy chair of medical humanities. "First, he was an avid collector of medical artifacts. He had a fairly extensive private collection that he wanted to make sure had a home. Maybe even more importantly, he had a very firm belief that if students learned about medicine surrounded by the history of medicine they would be better practitioners."

As a result, the Pearson Museum functions not only as a museum but also as a teaching "theater," with dozens of chairs always present to serve as a classroom or lecture facility, a touch inspired by the Victorian English medical amphitheaters depicted in movies such as Frankenstein.
The museum, which is focused on turn-of-the-century medicine in the Mississippi Valley, was designed to house three permanent exhibitions and several temporary ones.

The first thing you notice as you enter the Pearson Museum is one of its permanent exhibitions: a 19th-century physician's office, complete with hanging skeleton, ornate bookshelf and desk, and examining chair that reclines into a table. This type of chair was common in obstetricians' and gynecologists' offices of the time.

The combined bookshelf and desk was made for a Chicago physician just before the city's Great Fire, in 1871. "It was being shipped from where it was manufactured in Indiana to Chicago and was in transit when the fire happened," Davis says. It never made it to Chicago; instead, it ended up in another physician's office, in Oswego.

The desk has five slim bookshelves, no more than a foot wide. "The wonderful thing is, they were specifically designed to hold every single solitary thing a physician needed to practice at the time the desk was built," Davis says.

Across the room is another permanent exhibit, one of the museum's crown jewels: a real Depression-era drugstore from Canton, Ill., called Lewis Drugs. "The story is, the pharmacist who owned the drugstore went bankrupt in the Depression, closed the door, padlocked it, and walked away. Some 35 years later, someone with an interest in the history of pharmacy discovered the drugstore [and acquired it]," Davis says. Pearson met the new owner and persuaded him to permanently display the store in the SIU-SM museum. "It has all of the equipment that was in the drugstore," Davis says.

Examine the Lewis drugstore, and enter a time warp. Behind the marble counter is the soda fountain. Sitting on row after row of wooden shelves are more than 200 apothecary jars with all of the nonpoisonous, nonnarcotic herbs and drugs still intact, according to Davis. Even the store's ornate glass windows and original marquee are there.

The museum's third permanent exhibition is focused on the history of rural health care.

It's hard not to giggle — or squirm — as you examine at some of the museum's temporary exhibits, such as the display of late 1800s patent medicines, the equivalent of today's over-the-counter drugs. They usually contained a lot of opium and alcohol, came in many flavors, and promised to cure virtually everything, and their names were as laughable as their purportedusefulness — for instance, "Kolger fluid beef," "Prunlax," and "stomach bitters."

Although Davis says the museum mainly serves "the teaching needs of the SIU Medical School," it is open on Tuesdays "for group tours and people doing research." You must make an appointment to see the museum: Contact Allona Mitchell, museum registrar, at 217-545-8017 or at amitchell@siumed.edu.

Contact Tara McClellan McAndrew
at TMcand22@aol.com.

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