Keepers of Monroe's medical mysteries

The Medical Museum and Archives houses more than 1,000 years of Rochester’s medical history
009 Medical Museum
Michael Hanlon
Kathleen Britton

If there is one thing historians in Rochester know, it’s that the Flower City has more interesting ties to significant people and events than the average person would expect. Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, George Eastman, and all of their respectives graves/houses/museums/estates/historical landmarks are grandiose pieces of history that have the power to overshadow some of the more quant community stories. In a city whose story can be viewed through many lenses, the Medical Museum and Archives within the Academy of Medicine at 1441 East Avenue is here to provide Rochester a new way to look at the past.

Director Kathleen Britton is the picture of an excited historian: millions of papers and books crowding her office space, and a face that absolutely lights up as she recalls names, dates, times, people, and, most importantly, stories from the seemingly endless encyclopedia that is her mind. “We are the keepers of over 1,000 years of Rochester regional medical history,” she says. Located on the second floor of the Academy of Medicine, a Lyons estate built in 1908, the museum and archive did not always reside in such a pristine historical location. Founded in 1947, the organization started in a small room in Rochester General Hospital before moving to Carlson Park in 2005 and finally to its current home in 2014. The Museum and Archives itself consists of a large space lined with endless stacks that constitute the “archives” part of the name. Spanning back into the unseeable, the shelves of information are regularly traversed by Kathleen, her sole full-time partner, administrative assistant Karen Maples, and the handful of volunteers they currently rely on.

“We are open to the public, and a lot of what we get tends be genealogical. We have nursing transcripts and class photographs,” says Britton, “along with many requests we get from within the corporate system … and other museums.”

The endless information in the stacks is also used to curate the displays in the gallery that make up the museum. Rotating exhibits and some permanent fixtures are on display in the room beside that of the stacks, where the public can visit and view medical artifacts dating back many years. “It’s a different way to look at local history,” says Britton. “[There are] stories of little kids donating firecracker money to the hospitals or bringing in potatoes to feed the patients. They gathered, they got donations, it was very community focused.”

Like any good nonprofit, the Museum and Archives faces a distinct lack of time and resources, meaning that it subsists on grants written for individual projects and the interest of the public. These grants are what brought Britton on in the first place and, eventually, kept her around long enough to become the director. Britton, who has now been involved with the organization for twenty years, started at another historical society after graduating with her certificate in museum studies from New York University. When her time there was up, she heard about a grant position at the Museum and Archives, which lead to her joining the team for the project. Disbursements of more grants and the eventual creation of a full-time position kept her on after completion and when previous director Phil Maples became ill, she took over as interim director. She was finally convinced to take over the role permanently in 2011. “They had to wear me down because I didn’t want to be the director. I wanted to do all the fun stuff…like handling photos and doing research,” says Britton. “But there are so many good stories I still get to work on.”

As an organization of history and education, telling stories is indeed what the Medical Museum and Archives is best at. The displays in the gallery show original nursing uniforms and large, well-researched walls of information. A series of books about the advent of the birth control pill sit in the corner next to a display of microscopes and patent medicines. Biographical sketches of physicians and information about the nineteenth general hospital, the local military hospital unit for WWII, and the 1902 Nurse Practice Act, which established the RN license in New York, are also on display. Alongside these are the more permanent timeline history exhibits on four regional hospitals and the General and Genesee Hospitals’ nursing schools.

When using the museum’s resources to investigate Rochester medical history, two of the most common themes you’ll notice are community and the contributions of women to the field. “It’s very much a community-focused [history], and it’s definitely driven by the women,” says Britton. Currently, the museum is working on a project that focuses on the history of the volunteer department, which came out of the 1918 influenza epidemic and World War I. The volunteer group made to supplement the floundering workforce of the time still exists now, more than 100 years later. Information is also available on the Twigs, an organization founded in 1803 by local Louise Elliott Whitney. What started as a ladies’ sewing group became a major source of resources donated to the hospitals. Now known as Rochester General Hospital Association, the original name came about when the founder lamented that their impact perhaps wasn’t big enough to make them like a tree, but that they could at least be a Twig.

“You don’t usually look at [history] from health care or philanthropy. Those aren’t common lenses. People don’t often think about it,” says Britton. As the keepers of these memories, however, the Rochester Medical Museum and Archives specializes in helping people discover a new way to look at our past by identifying, organizing, and making this information available to the public. Certainly a place deserving of more attention than it currently gets, the Medical Museum and Archives remembers and tells the stories we might have otherwise forgotten. “The history shows that, on its good days, Rochester is very good at taking care of its own,” says Britton.


Mary Walrath is an arts journalism master’s student and graduate assistant at the Newhouse School of Syracuse University.

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