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Community Heritage

VA museum a medical marvel

July 1st, 2013 10:22 am by Jennifer Sprouse

VA museum a medical marvel

The Medical Museum, at the Veterans Administration, Mountain Home, covers the local history of the practice of medicine through exhibits donated by local physicians and their families and friends of the museum. Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press

The Museum at Mountain Home, which started around 1977 as books and journals were being collected for the James H. Quillen College of Medicine Library, has garnered quite the collection of both journals and rare artifacts over the years that speaks well to the longstanding medical history of the region.
Martha Whaley, history of medicine librarian at the College of Medicine Library, said the museum started with various donations of books and journals, which eventually led to citizens donating 19th and 20th century medical items of their ancestors, such as stethoscopes and microscopes.
“Over the years we continued to collect, but we really didn’t have a place to display what we had collected. In 1994, (former Veterans Affairs Medical Center director) Dr. Carl Gerber realized that there were VA people who were also collecting artifacts and he got the two groups together — the people who were connected with the College of Medicine Library and the people who were at the VA,” Whaley said.
She said Gerber was the one who found the museum’s current location in the VA’s old mess hall, which at one time fed 1,000 people three meals a day.
From wall to wall, the space holds glass cabinets with various items collected from ear, nose and throat doctors, as well as old medical instruments, which despite their makeup of metal and wood or ivory, haven’t changed much over the years.
Some other unique, but interesting, items in the museum’s growing collection includes blood-letting equipment, a portable embalming kit and a huge, metal capsule known as the Iron Lung.
“The Iron Lung was used in the late ’40s and early ’50s before the Salk vaccine where people with polio could not breathe. There was nothing wrong with their lungs, it was the muscles around their lungs. They had to be in here so that they could live,” Whaley said. “Some people got better and were able to be out of the Iron Lung. Some people stayed in it all their lives.”
Another interesting item in the museum included a foot-pedal dental drill, where a picture from 1943 New Guinea illustrates one person pedaling and the dentist drilling on a patient.
“I’ve been told that in some cases the same person was pedaling and holding the drill,” Whaley said.
She said items from local physicians, such as Dr. Carroll Long, Dr. Robert Bowman, Dr. Walter Hankins, Dr. John Hankins and Dr. Tom Pritchett, are also on display at the museum.
“After we got this space then we were able to accept more artifacts and we received one large donation from the (McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee) because they decided that they didn’t want to collect medical artifacts,” Whaley said. “Our newest initiative is a nursing exhibit. We’re going to have artifacts from the Knoxville General Hospital. Several nurses who graduated from those programs have given us their paper memorabilia.”
Wanting to stick close to the museum’s mission of collecting, preserving and interpreting “the story of health care in south central Appalachia from the earliest practitioner to the present,” Whaley said she hopes the museum will never have to charge admission.
The Museum at Mountain Home is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9-11 a.m. and Wednesdays from 1:30-3:30 p.m.
Whaley said the museum is still accepting donated artifacts and said anyone wanting to donate can contact her at the museum for more information.
For more information, call 439-8069, email Whaley at or visit the museum’s website,

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