Museum of Health Care’s medical marvels

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Ever wonder what an iron lung looks like up close? Or how dentists pulled teeth in the 1800s? Or why leeches were – and still are – used by doctors? Then you might want to check out the Museum of Health Care at Kingston, just steps from Botterell Hall. “We really try to bring the story of Canadian health and medicine to life and create some excitement,” says the museum’s curator, Rowena McGowan.

Located on the grounds of Kingston General Hospital in a former residence for student nurses, the museum is independent but has always had close ties with Queen’s. The School of Medicine’s Hannah Chair in the History of Medicine frequently works with the museum, for instance. And Ms. McGowan often guest lectures and hosts workshops for a variety of Queen’s classes – from history to medicine to literature and even geography. “The thing about health care is that it’s a very specific subject, but it involves the personal, the societal, history, policy, economics, and beyond,” says Ms. McGowan.

Many of the museum’s artifacts also come from Queen’s School of Medicine, like the always-popular skeleton-shaped silver ashtray from a 1932 dance. Ms. McGowan’s own museum favourites are harder to pin down. “That’s like making a mother choose the favourite child,” she laughs. She does have a soft spot for the iron lung in the vaccine exhibit, however, as well as the blue sputum flask, into which tuberculosis patients would cough to try to contain their mucus and germs.

As for what Ms. McGowan hopes visitors take away from their experience, it’s all about perspective. “I really hope they have a greater understanding of why we do the things we do in health care, all the work that was done to get us here, and maybe what the future might look like.”


Infant’s vaccinated arm

This wax anatomical model of an infant’s arm shows a vaccination vesicle, or blister, 
on the 10th day. It was made in London, England, at some point between 1850 and 1870. Wax anatomical models were an important medical teaching tool from the Renaissance to the 20th century. 

Sputum flask

These small flasks were commonly used in the early 20th century to reduce the spread of tuberculosis. Patients would cough their saliva and mucus into the flasks and, when the containers were full, burn the contents.    

Fox’s tooth key

This T-shaped dental turnkey was used to extract teeth in the mid-1800s. Early versions of this tool had a straight shaft; the bend is a later development as an attempt to prevent adjoining teeth from being damaged. 

Laudanum bottle

A blue-tinted glass bottle with a stopper stuck in the opening, its label advises that laudanum “must be used with great care.” Laudanum, a tincture of opium, was commonly used in the 19th century as a sleep aid or pain killer, but was also highly addictive.

Skeleton ash tray

A unique souvenir of a 1932 Queen’s med-school dance. Engraved with the words “Medical at Home,” the ash tray features a jovial skeleton. Annual Medical at Home dances were usually in mid- to late November at Grant Hall and were a big part of student social life at Queen’s. Studies at the time had already started to link cigarettes and cancer, but these had received scant attention.

Below are some more fascinating objects on display at the Museum of Health Care.


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