more on mental illness with Backstory podcast

July 21, 2014


The latest episode of one of my favorite podcasts, BackStory, looked at the history of diagnosis and treatment of mental illness in the United States this week. I like this podcast because it looks at a theme over several centuries and takes pains to set the right context for each time period. The experts they interview for the show are fantastic as well. It was a great episode which touched on topics such as the DSM, the establishment of state mental institutions, and how society’s perception of mental illness has changed over the years. Take a listen!

This particular episode reminded me of the National Library of Medicine banner exhibit hosted by the museum this month on Charlotte Gilman Perkins and her story “The Yellow Wall-paper,” which examines the “rest cure” of the late 19th century.

Medicine in a log cabin

July 3, 2014

Last week I was out-and-about again at Mill Creek Park for a presentation about medical history for a group of summer campers. What made this presentation so exciting was that it took place INSIDE the AUTHENTIC log cabin of the first Youngstown-born physician. Talk about setting the context!


The Log Cabin built c1814

The Log Cabin built c1817

I had read about the log cabin and Dr. Timothy Woodbridge (1810-1893) in Dr. Melnick’s book “A History of Medicine in Youngstown and Mahoning Valley, OH” but this was my first time inside the preserved log cabin. There were four owners of the cabin between 1817 and the 1840s. Dr. Woodbridge purchased the cabin in 1863 and had it moved about 2 miles to its current location on Price Road near Lake Glacier. (He also owned a parcel of land in town.) The cabin is situated near the road, which would have been important for all the traveling done by doctors at that time. Dr. Woodbridge may have cared for patients inside his own home, but more often he would have traveled to their homes or the location of an emergency.

set up for the medical history presentation

set up for the medical history presentation


Timothy Woodbridge was the son of John E. Woodbridge, who immigrated to Youngstown from Stockbridge, Massachusetts in 1807. John was a tanner and established a shop on the west end of town. Timothy attended Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and gradated in 1833. From 1847 to 1848 he worked in Brazil as the family physician of David Tod, who was serving as the United States Minister there. He resumed his practice in Youngstown until he was appointed a Surgeon in the U.S. Army in 1861. He served at the Johnson’s Island prisoner camp on Lake Erie for the duration of the Civil War. He continued his practice in Youngstown and in 1871 his nephew Dr. John Eliot Woodbridge joined him. In 1872 he was part of the group of physicians that started the Mahoning County Medical Society and served as its first president for seven years. In 1879, Timothy was appointed by President Hayes to be a Surgeon in the U.S. Army again. This time he was stationed at Fort Peck, Montana, where he was the medical officer for troops and Indians for about three years. He returned to Youngstown and continued to practice medicine until he suffered a stroke in 1892 which left him partially paralyzed and clouded his mind at times. He died in the City Hospital in 1893 and is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.



Debating women’s “nervous temperament” in the 1890s

June 25, 2014

The Melnick Medical Museum is pleased to host a banner exhibit from the National Library of Medicine called “Literature of Prescription: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” The exhibit examines the interesting subject of “nervous exhaustion” and the Rest Cure during the late 1800s. It is on display in the Cushwa Hall cafe until August 8th. Literature of RX ad During this time period, doctors such as S. Weir Mitchell and George Beard were studying the treatment of neurasthenia or nervous exhaustion. This condition was strongly linked to educated, middle-class women who were considered to have weak or sensitive nerve systems. Doctors theorized that too much stress, over-education, or lack of exercise during the formative period from 13 to 17 years of age could permanently damage a woman’s nerve system. Later in life, this condition could show symptoms such as hay-fever, headache, extreme fatigue, indigestion, or hysteria.

Dr. S. Weir Mitchell

Dr. S. Weir Mitchell

Dr. S. Weir Mitchell was a famous doctor who had studied “nervous diseases” in American soldiers during World War I. He developed the “Rest Cure” where the patient was required to rest for 6 to 8 weeks. During the first week, the patient was not allowed to sit up or feed themselves. They were not allowed to sew, read, or write. A nurse took care of their needs and provided gentle massage for their muscles. Their food was a simple diet and did not include any of the potent medicines (often stimulants or narcotics) that were common at the time. In the following weeks, normal activities were gradually resumed. Charlotte Gilman Perkins was one of his patients in 1887. She had married Walter Stetson in 1884 and given birth to a daughter, Katharine, a year later. After Katherine was born, Charlotte began to experience periods of depression. She resented the narrow confines of married life and motherhood. Her diary entries from this time period show the pain and isolation she felt during her depression. After one month of Mitchell’s Rest Cure, she was sent home with instructions to “live as domestic a life as possible,” to lie down for one hour after meals, to limit her “intellectual life” to 2 hours per day, and never touch a pen, brush, or pencil again. For a woman like Charlotte, these instructions led to extreme distress, shame, and discouragement.


The fictional narrator of The Yellow Wall-Paper

After separating from her husband, Gilman moved to California with Katherine. In 1890, she wrote her famous short story “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” In it, the female narrator is undergoing the Rest Cure, isolated in a old nursery with bars on the windows and faded yellow wallpaper. Her forced isolation and restricted intellectual life gradually deteriorates her mind. At the end of the story, she tears off pieces of the wallpaper, trying to free the woman who she sees trapped inside. The story was controversial as soon as it was printed in 1892. Gilman published a short article explaining her motivation to write the story. She said “It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.” She had heard that after reading her story Dr. Mitchell had altered his treatment of neurasthenia.

Introducing our new “Digestive Elixir”

June 12, 2014

The Melnick Medical Museum is out and about in the community this summer, taking advantage of partnerships with other cultural institutions in the Youngstown area.

Last Saturday, we had fun at the Mill Creek Metro Parks Alice in Wonderland themed Garden Adventure Day. For this event, we created a new activity- a color changing elixir! 

We soaked red cabbage (particularly fitting for the Park, which grows cabbages in its Family Garden) in hot water to create a purplish potion. Cabbage is a natural way to help digestive problems such as ulcers and constipation. (It’s leaves can also be used topically to reduce swelling and heal bruises.) Check out the bright color of that water!




We added a small amount of baking soda to turn it blue. I “brewed” 2 gallons of this “digestive elixir”  for the event. We poured a small amount of the blue “elixir” into cups.



The magic happens when you add the “Digestive Elixir” into a citrus drink. We used Sprite for the added fun of the fizz.



And viola! The blue liquid turns pink when mixed with the citrus soda! Amazing!

The Melnick Medical Museum will be at Mill Creek Metro Parks again on Wednesday, June 25th for their summer camp in the historic Log Cabin. Join us!

Overlooked and Undervalued: The role of African Americans in Civil War medicine

April 22, 2014

The Melnick Medical Museum is pleased to partner with the Mahoning Valley Historical Society to present a lecture by Betsy Estilow called “Overlooked and Undervalued: The role of African Americans in Civil War Medicine.”

The lecture will take place at the Tyler History Center (325 West Federal Street, Youngstown, OH) on Wednesday, April 30th at 7:00pm. The lecture is free and open to the public.

A group of escaped slaves working for the Union Army (courtesy of the US Military History Institute)

A group of escaped slaves working for the Union Army                                                  (courtesy of the US Military History Institute)

African American men and women joined the war effort working at hospitals, on battlefields, and with relief efforts in both the North and South. Serving as surgeons, nurses, hospital attendants, cooks, and laundresses with the Union Forces, they challenged  the prescribed notions of race and gender. In the South, hundreds of African American men and women, both free and enslaved, played crucial roles in medical service. Their stories serve as inspiration to future generations.

The audio recording (mp3 format) of this lecture is available here.

Betsy Estilow is a professor emeritus of biology at Hood College in Frederick, MD, where she also serves as a lecturer in Civil War history and health professions advisor. Betsy received her Bachelor of Science degree from Albright College and her Master of Science degree in Medical Technology specializing in medical microbiology from West Virginia University. Thirty years ago, she began researching the role of women in the Civil War. Combining her interest in medical care and women has led her to an intense study of Civil War medicine. She serves as the President of the Board of Directors for the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, MD where she also helped in the research and design of the exhibits. She is also the co-founder of the Society for Women in the Civil War, a national group dedicated to recognizing the role of women from 1861 to 1865. She is the author of the book Doing My Duty: The wartime experiences of John S. Hard (1992).




Binding Wounds, Pushing Boundaries

April 16, 2014

The Melnick Medical Museum is pleased to host another banner exhibit from the National Library of Medicine called Binding Wounds, Pushing Boundaries: African Americans in Civil War Medicine. This exhibit highlights the contributions of African Americans as nurses, surgeons, and hospital workers, which has often been overlooked.


This exhibit looks at the men and women who served as medical care providers during the War and how their service changed common notions about race and gender. Individuals highlighted include surgeons Alexander T. Augusta and Anderson R. Abbott. Nurses who provided care are represented by Susie King Taylor and Ann Stokes.

This exhibit will be on display in the first floor atrium of Cushwa Hall through May 24, 2014. It is free and open to the public during the hours that the building is open.

New exhibits in Cushwa Hall

April 16, 2014

Last week I installed the first exhibits in the lower level of Cushwa Hall near the auditoriums. This is a busy hallway and I noticed many students looking at the displays as soon as I finished them. I am very excited to have these spaces to feature cool stuff from the museum’s collection. In the future, student research on the museum’s collection or topics of medical history could be displayed here as well.


The first display is about the history of medicinal alcohol. American physicians believed that alcohol served a variety of therapeutic purposes and prescribed it regularly through the 1800s. It was fascinating to read about their uses for wine, gin, whiskey, and beer. In the early 1800s, some doctors started to question this practice as they realized that too much alcohol or addiction to alcohol could be bad for your health. The exhibit particularly examines the use of alcohol in the early 1800s and how it united doctors against the government during Prohibition. The museum has several artifacts from the Prohibition period which were donated by the family of a Cleveland doctor. For more information about doctors’ use of medicinal alcohol during Prohibition, see this post.


The second display features two surgical kits that were recently donated to the museum by Dr. Rashid Abdu. The display chronicles the advancement of surgery. It begins with illustrations of tools used in the 17th century and a trephine kit from the 1780s. The second large case features a three-tiered surgical kit from the 1850s (pictured above) and some early anesthesia equipment. The last case discusses the rise of antiseptic practices, in particular masks, gloves, and metal tools.


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