It’s a dream job for a retired Fort Myers surgeon, a self-proclaimed packrat who has kept several gallstones from former patients, the 1958 Royal manual typewriter used in his first medical office, and his 1939 Florida driver’s license — which he legally obtained at the age of 13 before getting behind the wheel to drive his parents to Texas.
Dr. Roger Scott, 84, Lee county’s first board-certified general surgeon, now serves as the official curator and unofficial guardian angel of the David Bernstein Memorial Museum of Medical History, housed in a 1,800 square foot gallery inside the nursing building on Edison State College’s South Myers campus.
As curator, Scott is responsible for acquiring, cataloging, cleaning and displaying everything in the museum. However, as its guardian angel, he’s also committed himself to learning and sharing all he can about the names and background of the artifacts’ donors and original owners. That includes the very human stories of tragedy and triumph woven into the wicker of a 1910-era wheelchair or framed inside the ivory, ebony and tortoise-shell handles of long-dead surgeons’ knives lined up precisely in the full-size 1928-era operating room.
Straps and bulbs
He shows you the operating room of yore: The patient would lie on a stark metal table covered with a black leather pad thinner than a modern-day prison mattress. Overhead, an alien-looking light the size of a basketball stood guard over the operating field, sprouting several curved arms attached to mirrored reflectors that split the 550-watt lightbulb’s beam to target the surgeon’s work site.
As curator, Scott can relate how the light was transported, restored and installed in the museum. As guardian angel of that light’s history, he’ll tell you that it’s the same model as the operating light used in the original Lee Memorial Hospital in 1943, when patients had to be white to be treated there.
That light eventually was sent over to Jones Walker Hospital in Dunbar, known as “the black hospital” until it closed in 1966, following the eventual implementation of mandated segregation. Scott operated under that light at Jones Walker for eight years.
Or he’ll explain how important it was that this light be “explosion-proof” to prevent igniting 1928-era anesthesias like ether and cyclopropane. It happened in Baltimore at a hospital across town from where Scott was training as a surgeon, he recalls, and “it blew out the end of the operating room and killed the patient on the table.”
On a low cube along the back wall quietly rests an assembly that has seen more human suffering than any other object in the museum — and “should be in the Smithsonian,” according to Scott. The curator in him will tell you that it’s the inventor’s original portable shock-proof x-ray machine. About 1,500 of the units were made by the Picker X-Ray Co. and sold to the U.S. government for military use during World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Loaded onto a wheeled cart, the machines were used in MASH units and field hospitals.
Scott the guardian angel will add that the unit was given to him by a former patient who found it in the garage of the Cape Coral home he had just purchased. Further research revealed that the inventor of this unit had himself been a patient of Scott’s, following his retirement to Lee County.
Even earlier medicine
Other exhibits include a restored turn-of-the-century pharmacy with a checkerboard floor and rows of original cabinets holding bottles, books and mortar and pestle sets used by pharmacists to grind bark, leaves and other natural remedies into powder. There’s a container that held Hunter’s Red Lotion, which Scott recalls as a popular Florida remedy for athlete’s foot, ringworm and itching.
Three nursing capes hang on the wall, including a gray woolen one with brass buttons, reputedly sewn by the same company that provided military capes for Union soldiers during the Civil War. A vertical case displays a dozen nursing caps, showing their evolution from the Civil War to modern times. Museum visitors are greeted by two mannequins in the front window wearing nursing uniforms from the 1950s. Another sports a 1970-era nursing jumpsuit, a nod to the mod.
“Everything behind these girls is all about the past. I like them looking out the window, to the future.” Scott says with a smile.
The free museum is dedicated to Dr. David Bernstein. Museum co-founder Dr. Jacob Goldberger had just lost Bernstein, his Fort Myers practice partner, who died unexpectedly in 1998. Goldberger and Bernstein’s family wanted to honor the young surgeon’s memory and approached Scott because of his well-known interest in Florida medical history.
The museum currently displays only one-eighth of the artifacts it has collected, says curator Scott, and the rest are in a 3,000 square foot storage room. He invites prospective volunteers and individuals who may wish to make a tax-deductible donation toward the display and preservation of medical artifacts to contact him at the Edison College museum by calling 489-9208.
He’s also hoping for calls from people who own a piece of medical history they may be willing to donate.
Sometimes it’s the job of a museum curator and guardian angel to dream big: “What we really need here is an iron lung,” says Scott.