Morbidly curious and scientific-minded will enjoy Mobile Medical Museum

Morbidly curious and scientific-minded will enjoy Mobile Medical Museum
Daryn Glassbrook, executive director of the Mobile Medical Museum, with one of the museum's most popular displays, an iron lung from the 1930s. (Michael Tomberlin/Alabama NewsCenter)

The Mobile area has many sites for tourists to visit. The Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center and IMAX Theater, the USS Alabama Battleship, the beautiful flowers of Bellingrath Gardens, dipping your toes in the warm Gulf waters off Dauphin Island, celebrating Mardi Gras at the Mobile Carnival Museum. There’s one other attraction in Mobile that may not immediately catch your attention, but you should not miss: the Mobile Medical Museum.

Dr. Samuel Eichold II of Mobile founded the museum in 1962 from a modest collection of 100 medical artifacts, books and documents from the 18th and 19th centuries collected by Patricia Heustis Paterson, daughter of Mobile physician James Heustis (1828-1891). Thus began the museum’s mission, to preserve and exhibit medical artifacts that commemorate Mobile’s importance in the evolution of medical education and public health in Alabama and along the Gulf Coast.

Bringing history to life at the Mobile Medical Museum from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

It wasn’t long before the museum began to grow, as did the collections, which showcase the early days and advances in nursing, radiology, infectious diseases, pharmacology and more. Eventually, the museum outgrew its locations and moved, more than once.

As the collections continued to grow, space became more and more precious. Displays include an iron lung from the 1930s, an antique wheelchair, Civil War medical tools and two life-sized papier-mache anatomical models that belonged to Dr. Josiah Nott, who used them to demonstrate the autonomic nervous system and the lymphatic system.

Mobile surgeon Dr. Charles Rodning is president of the Mobile Medical Museum and has been affiliated with the organization for 40 years.

“Since my family and I located to Mobile, I interacted with the founder, Dr. Eichold, in part because of my education as a physician and part because I have a keen interest in medical history,” Rodning said. “A substantial component of my scholarly endeavor has been in relationship to medical history, particularly in relationship to how it relates to this community and to this region.”

It has been his love of history, and this organization, that produced a special exhibition space, the Mary Elizabeth and Charles Bernard Rodning Gallery, at the museum. “Very proud to have a gallery here that will bear the Rodning family name. The Rodning family is most appreciative and most grateful and humble for that honor,” Rodning said.

The Rodning Gallery is one of many housed in a space that has become much too small for these collections. With more than 5,000 medical artifacts, the museum rotates its showcase pieces regularly and is housed, quite fittingly, on the first floor of Mobile’s oldest house. The Vincent-Doan-Walsh House is on the National Register of Historic Places and sits on the campus of the University of South Alabama Children’s and Women’s Hospital. The Mobile Medical Museum has been there since 2003.

Rodning said there is a continuous struggle for exhibit space.

“We only have approximately 1,000 square feet at the moment and at least five times that many artifacts and specimens and manuscripts and records that we could display. Even given the history of this building, if given the opportunity to move, we would,” he said.

As Museum Executive Director Daryn Glassbrook explained, making the most of the situation has become an art all to itself.

“This location has some advantages being in a medical quarter of the city, and not too far from downtown,” Glassbrook said. “A lot of people have the misunderstanding that we are affiliated with the University of South Alabama, which has never been true. We are small and independent and locally funded, which most people don’t know. Our funding comes from donations and a few foundations. We are going to bring back some event fundraising in the coming year. We made some progress in event fundraising in the last year, but it’s a struggle. All the nonprofits in Mobile are dealing with this same issue.”

The Mobile Medical Museum receives about 1,100 visitors annually, and most are students from grade school through college and medical school. Glassbrook said most tourists who are not students find the museum through TripAdvisor because they are looking for a unique experience.

“When I organize the displays I’m thinking about which artifacts these visitors would most like to see. A lot of the medical museums have as part of their audience people who are looking for the unusual. It’s not the most mainstream form of entertainment,” Glassbrook said with a laugh.

“We’re rooted in history, but we try to be contemporary, too. We’re planning a Founder’s Day in May to celebrate Dr. Eichold’s birthday, and this summer we’re launching a summer camp in partnership with the Gulf Coast Exploreum for the first time.”

The museum is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., by appointment, but museum staff is hoping to expand the hours to add one evening and one weekend for drop-in visits. To know more about the museum or to make a contribution, visit https://www.mobilemedicalmuseum.org/.

“I think a lot of history buffs would enjoy a tour of the museum,” Rodning said. “People who do come here are amazed at what medicine was like 50, 100 or more years ago.”

Lori Quiller is director of communications for the Medical Association of the State of Alabama.

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