Chevalier Jackson, MD, saved thousands of children by removing swallowed objects from their esophagi, tracheae and lungs. Some 2,000 of the items he retrieved and catalogued are on display at Philadelphia's Mütter Museum. They include toy opera glasses (left) lodged in a 4-year-old's esophagus. Safety pins (center) were another commonly recovered object. One of the more unusual items was a toy dog (right) in the esophagus of a 3-year-old. Photos courtesy of The New Press/Mary Cappello

Finder of lost objects saved lives, left medical legacy

An exhibit of small items the patients of Chevalier Jackson, MD, swallowed in the late 1800s and early 1900s is on display in Philadelphia.

By Carolyne Krupa — Posted March 21, 2011

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» View slide show: A legacy of lost objects -- and saved lives

Tucked under the stairs on the lower level of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia's Mütter Museum is a red oak cabinet of drawers filled with an assortment of small objects. There are jewelry charms, class pins, buttons, coins and a slew of safety pins, just to name a few.

But this is no random collection. Each object carries the story of a patient's life saved -- and some patients lost -- by a physician ahead of his time. These items swallowed by patients were retrieved by Chevalier Jackson, MD, who practiced in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

"When you are looking at the collection there is a sense that the objects are haunted by the ghosts of the lives of the patients," said Mary Cappello, author of Swallow, a new book about the life and collection of Dr. Jackson.

Dr. Jackson was a laryngologist, pediatrician, inventor, designer and artist who made great strides in medicine. He developed tools and methods of safely removing aspirated foreign bodies from the esophagus, trachea and lungs, and was a passionate safety advocate.

He was key to the passage of the 1927 Federal Caustic Poison Act, which required warning labels and skull-and-cross-bones symbols still found on poisonous substances.

The life and contributions of Dr. Jackson are receiving renewed interest with the January release ofCappello's book and recent refurbishment and planned expansion of the Mütter Museum's permanent exhibit dedicated to him.

Wayne LaMont Hellman, MD, a retired anesthesiologist in Dallas, has a personal connection to Dr. Jackson. Without him, Dr. Hellman, 80, may never have been born.

Nestled among the drawers of the museum exhibit is item No. 572, a 7 mm brass cap that Dr. Jackson removed from Dr. Hellman's then 9-year-old father in 1916.

Dangerous toy


Dr. Jackson spent hundreds of hours examining swallowed objects, their effect on patients and the safest ways to remove them.

His father, Rudolph Joseph Hellman, was 7 when he accidently swallowed the cap from a bed stand in the house. He and his younger siblings had been using it as a makeshift whistle. "Kids on the farm, they had to make their own toys," Dr. Hellman said.

The cap went into the boy's windpipe, causing a coughing fit. In the months that followed, Rudolph's condition got progressively worse. He developed a persistent fever and soon was too sick to attend school. Local physicians were perplexed until about a year later, when an x-ray revealed that the cap was lodged in Rudolph's right lung.

Numerous attempts to remove it failed, but word of a physician said to be performing miracles for children in Pennsylvania provided new hope. Rudolph's mother wrote a letter to Dr. Jackson explaining her son's medical history. "She ended it by saying they didn't have much money," Dr. Hellman said. "He wrote back and said, 'If you get to Pittsburgh, you won't need much money.' "

After the harvest on their farm, she bought two train tickets and they traveled three days to Pittsburgh. Dr. Jackson's first attempt to remove the cap failed, but he fashioned a special tool that night.

The next day, Rudolph's mother was greeted by her son coming off the elevator. "He was sitting up on the gurney and said, 'Mom, they got it,' " Dr. Hellman said.

Dr. Jackson had removed the cap, which had been in Rudolph for two years, with no anesthesia in 17 minutes and 53 seconds. "My grandmother really wanted that piece of brass back, but [Dr. Jackson] said, 'No, Mrs. Hellman, that's my payment,' " Dr. Hellman said.

A legacy left behind

Cappello, an English professor at the University of Rhode Island, was drawn to learn more about Dr. Jackson after seeing the exhibit. "It was the poetry of the idea behind the objects that drew me," she said.

Dr. Jackson designed hollow tubes with lights at the bottom that became some of the first esophagoscopes and bronchoscopes. He also was a prolific artist, making charcoal sketches of what he saw through his scopes.

The exhibit of more than 2,000 objects is one of the museum's most popular, said curator Anna Dhody.

The exhibit was refurbished in February with a new, custom-built case. "He was extremely meticulous," Dhody said. "Every single object is mounted in this wood-and-glass container with a little number with it."

Each number refers to an entry in a catalog Dr. Jackson kept, with basic information about each incident, including the patient's age, a brief description of the object, how it was extracted and whether the patient lived.

There are plans to build an additional glass cabinet on top of the case to display some of Dr. Jackson's tools and medical illustrations.

The expansion will add a new dimension and give visitors a fuller impression of Dr. Jackson and the legacy he left behind.

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External links

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia (link)

Mütter Museum (link)

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