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Community Portrait

Expert at helm of new medical museum

By: Michael Kirby
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Editor’s note: This is one in a series of community portraits published in this space Fridays. In the United States there are just 12 museums dedicated strictly to the history of medicine. In California there are four medical museums and in Auburn, through the efforts of many local individuals and service groups, we have one of those medical museums. At 219 Maple St. in Old Town, in the building that housed the first hospital in Placer County, stands the Gold Country Medical History Museum. The first hospital in Placer County opened in 1855 in Auburn. The building was nearly destroyed by fire in 1890 and was sold to the Jacobs family, as construction of a new county hospital began on Elm Street. The Old Town Business Association and the Old Town Auburn Preservation Society, through individual and business donations, and grant funds were able to purchase the building from the County of Placer and the City of Auburn. Generous donations of labor and materials from local service groups and individuals made the restoration of the hospital building and museum possible. Kent Perryman, Ph.D., is curator of the museum and works with volunteer docents Robert Schnitzler, M.D. and Philip Janicke, M.D., both retired area physicians. They’re able to discuss in detail the medical practices of the 1800s, and the history of the building. Perryman became involved with the museum after retiring from the UCLA School of Medicine as an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Medicine and relocating to this area. He moved here in 2005 and started volunteering at the Sacramento medical museum. “We built a home in Foresthill and after that I got bored and started volunteering as a docent at the Sacramento museum. And I also built a Web site for them,” said Perryman. Ross Carpenter, president of the Old Town Preservation Society (OTAPS), soon became aware of Perryman’s work with the Sacramento Museum and Perryman started attending a few of the group’s meetings as completion of the Auburn museum neared. “I approached Ross Carpenter and said, you know you’re going to need a curator to label and catalog all of these artifacts, and put everything on a database,” said Perryman. As curator it’s his job to catalog each item as to who donated it, who manufactured the item, what year it was made, try to find an approximate value and any other information on the artifact. This he enters into a searchable database. Along with the legitimate early tools of medical practice from the 1850s through the 1940s that the museum showcases, Perryman admits that his research into some of these artifacts leads him to products that he hasn’t seen before. “Some of these items we call quackery that don’t have any scientific or medical merit that were sold through places like a Sears catalog,” said Perryman. “It was snake oil, smoke and mirrors.” The museum has a section dedicated to medical quackery that is quite interesting. Perryman also collects medical antiques and has donated most of his collection to the Auburn and Sacramento museums. “There are less and less of these artifacts available and we rely on people’s generosity for donations,” said Perryman. Perryman is working toward finding more docents and expanding museum hours to seven days a week. “We would also like to make the museum available for school tours involving fourth, fifth and sixth graders, an age when they start really waking up and looking at things,” he observed. “Once we’re open seven days a week we can get leeches. Boys love leeches, and they love maggots – the gory stuff.” The museum is currently open noon to 3 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday.