Tools of the trade: Urology museum exhibits scopes and catheters galore

Historic instruments provide evidence of medicine's evolution through the centuries.

By Susan J. Landers — Posted Sept. 8, 2008

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Cystoscopes, resectoscopes and laparoscopes! Oh, my! A vast array of urologic memorabilia is on display at the William P. Didusch Center for Urologic History at the American Urological Assn. in Linthicum, Md. An examination of these wares provides not only a look at the history of medicine, but also insights into the health and well-being of our culture as a whole.

Housed on the first floor of the AUA's headquarters in a new industrial park just south of Baltimore, the collection includes an assortment of scopes -- some antique and some modern -- as well as centuries-old medical texts and kidney stones of an impressive size.

The center has nearly 600 cystoscopes alone, including a replica of the candle-fueled Lichtleiter, or light conductor, which was proposed in the early 1800s by Philipp Bozzini, a German physician. Also on display are scopes designed by German urologist Maximilian Carl-Friedrich Nitze, with incandescent platinum wire loops to illuminate the bladder and a system of lenses to magnify its image for the viewer.

"The cystoscope is perhaps the most significant of all contributions of urology to medicine," according to exhibit literature. It provided a noninvasive way to peer into the body and eventually led to a route for removing tumors or tissues. The invention paved the way for endoscopy and laparoscopy as well as the entire modern movement toward small incisions and less invasive procedures.

The center also houses a grouping of about 40 microscopes. One, dating from the early 1700s, is a sleek, single-eyepiece model. Its carvings and decorations elevate its status to that of a scientific instrument of importance even though its power of magnification was low. The collection was donated to the center by the German urologist Hans Reuter in 1995.

There are catheters galore at the museum given the device's well-earned reputation as a source of relief from acute urinary retention. The ancient Chinese wrote of using onion stalks to drain the bladder, and the Egyptians, Romans and Greeks described tubes of wood and precious metals, according to exhibit materials. Benjamin Franklin also designed a silver coil catheter for his brother in 1752, and may have used the device himself.

The center also houses some X-rated sex items: a jade phallus and anti-masturbation devices.

In addition to the thousands of items in the permanent collection -- many of which are in storage -- the museum mounts a special exhibit each year. "Sexuality: Perception and Performance Throughout History," was the 2006 undertaking, and "Women Healers" were featured in 2007.

The current exhibit, "Plagues and Pestilence: Epidemics Through the Ages," has as its centerpiece a giant sailing ship that carries the heavy burden of bubonic plague, leprosy, cholera, yellow fever and malaria, polio, syphilis, smallpox, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, the Spanish flu of 1918, and HIV and AIDS.

This show, which runs through December, recalls the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, calling it "the most repulsive large-scale medical experimentation of the 20th century."

It also highlights Mary Mallon, better known as "Typhoid Mary," and relates the story of her extended quarantine on an island until her death in 1938.

The people in the stories

People, not just instruments and disease, are featured prominently in the museum. For example, the story of James Buchanan Brady, also known as "Diamond Jim," is featured in a display case along with that of Hugh Hampton Young, MD, the urologist who operated on the obese, hypertensive and diabetic Brady in 1912.

After the successful operation, Brady, a Gilded Age entrepreneur with a love of sparkly gems, donated the money to start the Brady Urological Institute at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore where Dr. Young practiced.

The museum has several other ties to Hopkins, too. Dr. Didusch, its founder, was a well-known medical artist at the school and served as its first curator. Retired urologist Rainer Engel, MD, who also hails from Johns Hopkins, is the current curator. Dr. Engel displays an enthusiasm for his current post that makes one doubt his proclamations that "In high school, I couldn't care less about history." But he cares now.

"The instrument really tells you the story," he said, during a tour of the many items in his care. And, given his in-depth understanding of the instruments and what they have to say about medicine, he pays close attention.

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Museum info

The William P. Didusch Center for Urologic History: 1000 Corporate Boulevard, Linthicum, Md., 21090

Hours of operation: Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Current exhibit: "Plagues and Pestilence: Epidemics Through the Ages," through Dec. 31

For more information: By telephone 410-689-3785 or online (link)

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