Inside an old building at the corner of Euclid and Adelbert on Case Western Reserve University’s campus sits the Dittrick Medical History Center, the least known and most unique of Cleveland’s many wonderful history museums.
The museum dates back to the 1920s. Cleveland socialite Elizabeth Severance Allen donated money to CWRU in 1915 to build a medical library in memory of her husband, prominent surgeon Dr. Dudley Peter Allen, insisting the library include a museum, that would later be named after its first curator, Dr. Howard Dittrick.
Exhibits include a lot of general Cleveland history: disease outbreaks in Cleveland and the role nurses played in care and prevention, medical innovations spearheaded by local hospitals and medical research centers, and a replica of a local doctor’s office from the 1920s.
And in the back gallery of the museum sits the Percy Skuy Collection, an exhibit focusing on the history, growth, and development of birth control.
“The contraception collection found us. We didn’t have to go looking for it,” says the museum’s chief curator, Jim Edmonson. “[Percy Skuy] was a representative for a pharmaceutical company in Toronto. They were marketing spermicidal jellies, diaphragms—later they would start marketing the pill and manufacturing IUDs. He had started to collect these things, I think more as an icebreaker, to say, ‘Wow, look what they were doing in the past, isn’t that silly?’”
Skuy was looking for a permanent home for his 700-piece collection after he retired, and he ultimately selected Cleveland. Edmonson explains, “I saw it as an opportunity for us because of, well, the subject of sex. We’re interested, but beyond that, it’s a way to inform the public about an important subject matter in a way that is non-confrontational. You’re not forced to emote or talk about it. It’s passive in a way. You can look at something that you would otherwise find controversial and not get that worked up over it.”
For example, pornography. Civil War era photos of women with their dresses lifted up to expose an ankle hang on the walls of the Dittrick Museum, but in 2017, you won’t need to hide your eyes from seeing the bottom of a woman’s shin bone.
And it only gets better.
The collection includes an advertisement from the early 20th-century for the well-known disinfectant, Lysol, being promoted as a “feminine hygiene product.” “Where sunlight cannot purify—germs breed,” says the sinister-sounding ad, warning women against committing “intimate neglect.”
Female condoms were initially developed in the late 1990s and marketed in Africa to help prevent the spread of AIDS. The female condoms began to take off in Europe and Australia, but have yet to gain a solid footing in the U.S. The exhibit cases showing modern-day contraception include female condoms and some of the more unusual ways they have been marketed, including one packaged in the cover art for the Jet single, “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?”
The Percy Skuy Collection introduces us to Emma Goldman and Ben Reitman, two late-19th-century anarchists and birth control advocates whose radical views earned them lengthy arrest records, including Goldman being implicated for inspiring the assassination of U.S. President William McKinley. Goldman and Reitman were regulars around the Midwest, making many trips through Cleveland while smuggling in birth control devices and passing out literature.
Visitors are also introduced to Le Livre Sans Titre, “The Book Without a Title.” Published in 1830 in Paris, France, “It shows progressive physical decline of the guy as a result of his masturbation,” says Edmonson. “He gets sick and debilitated, his teeth fall out, and he dies, all because he was indulging in ‘self-abuse.’” A young man aged 17, “He corrupted himself!” the book says. “Soon he bore the grief of his error, old before his time…his back hunches…A devouring fire sears his gut; he suffers horrible stomach pains.” Edmonson provides a scanned copy and translation of the book online.
The darkest piece in the exhibit is the propaganda literature created by the eugenics movement of the 1920s and ‘30s, titled Golden Thoughts on Chastity and Procreation. On display is a three-fold pamphlet, the two inside pages showing individual baby photos in frames. The left side shows a page of light-skinned, photogenic black children, titled “Children of Pure and Intelligent Parents.” The right side is titled, “Children of the Poor and Uneducated,” and shows mostly dark-skinned black children, some with an appearance suggesting mental and physical abnormalities.
“The eugenics movement was driven by wealthy people who had social power who thought they could dictate their morals to lesser people,” explains Edmonson. “‘Lesser people’ could have been immigrants, African-Americans, poor people. ‘Do-gooders’ in society would preach to them, show them habits that would lead to better lives for themselves and their families. We would find some of their practices reprehensible today—people who were known as ‘mental defectives’ were sterilised. They advocated birth control methods as kind of [a way to] re-establish social order.”
The level of discomfort with the items in this collection is balanced by the notion that we understand those times have passed and such ridiculous concepts have disappeared with the progression of science, morality, and human understanding—but it has been a long road.
Regardless of one’s personal beliefs on the science of reproductivity and the morals of human contraception, a visit to the Dittrick Museum’s Percy Skuy Collection can show you the history and science behind one of the most psychologically-impactful medical developments of our time, and all you need to believe in is what you see with your eyes.
The Dittrick Medical History Center is open to the public and always free to visit. For more information, visit artsci.case.edu/dittrick/.