The first thing you notice when you step into the bright lobby is the iron lung.
With an abrupt clunk and a whir, the 1950s-era machine comes to life. About 65 years ago, inside Sacramento County Hospital, the ventilator solemnly toiled so that polio victims could breathe.
The functioning iron lung is just one of the highlights of the Museum of Medical History of the Sierra Sacramento Valley Medical Society, which is a bit off the beaten path in an office building at 5380 Elvas Avenue in East Sacramento.
“There are only about a dozen of these (iron lungs) in the United States available for the public to see,” Dr. Bob LaPerriere, a retired dermatologist and curator of the museum, said in a recent interview..
“You have to appreciate these were in the days before the availability of television, so the people in there would be pretty isolated,” LaPerriere explained in a video about the iron lung. “Their hands would be within the iron lung so they could not read books or anything like that. Their only contact with the outside world basically would be looking at the mirror above their head.”
And that’s just the beginning of the museum’s vast collection of medical tools, artifacts and ancient medicine that visitors can see for free. The museum provides a 150-plus-year journey through medical history, with a strong emphasis on the Sacramento region.
“We have a lot of material packed into a relatively small space,” LaPerriere said.
That might be an understatement. How so much history is packed into 1,000 square feet of office space is staggering.
The museum showcases developments in medicine from the mid-1800s to modern times. LaPerriere, whose medical knowledge is also staggering, has organized the museum by themes: patent medicines and pharmacology, basic science and laboratory medicine, antibiotics and infectious diseases, medical diagnosis and therapy, surgical diagnosis and therapy, nursing, Asian medicine, radiology, quackery and local medical history.
Also on display are examination tables; a 1920s-era X-ray machine; wheelchairs; nurses’ uniforms; a doctor’s office cabinet; skeleton; Civil War amputation kits; 19th-century tools for bleeding; medicines with mercury, arsenic and strychnine; and a variety of medical art. The museum used to house live leeches.
“It’s the oldest medical society in continuous operation, since 1868, in the West,” LaPerriere said.
The museum’s origins are rooted in 1990, when LaPerriere presented an exhibit at the Sacramento History Museum in Old Sacramento titled “Out of the Doctor’s Bag.” With funds remaining from that event, the medical society was able to purchase a couple of exhibit cases for the lobby. Then, 17 years ago, the museum’s main room opened.
LaPerriere said establishing the museum helps people understand the dramatic changes in medicine and care that have swept through time.
“It stimulates and educates people to think about the dramatic changes in medicine, many within one’s own lifetime such as the development of antibiotics, many of our current immunizations, and drugs made specifically for various diseases and disorders,” he said. “And it is a reminder of the disabling and at times fatal diseases such as polio and smallpox that no longer exist in the United States due to immunizations, and other diseases such as diphtheria that are only very rarely seen.”
The museum hosts groups from elementary school students to medical students. It is free and open to the public Monday-Friday, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., except for holidays.