Off the Beaten Path: The Country Doctor Museum

Written by on November 29, 2013 in Insight - No comments

Located in the small, rural town of Bailey, North Carolina, about 45 minutes east of Raleigh, The Country Doctor Museum offers a unique experience where guests discover the challenges and triumphs of health care and medicine in early rural America.

Museum History & ECU Connections

Inspired by the enthusiasm of Dr. Josephine E. Newell, a small group of determined women founded The Country Doctor Museum in 1967 as a lasting tribute to rural physicians. Dr. Newell, herself the seventh in a line of country doctors, wished to honor the memory of these predecessors who faithfully served in rural communities like Bailey. Through the generosity of these early volunteers and supporters, the Museum opened in a re-constructed building made from two historic doctor’s offices and the collections grew steadily to encompass family medicine, nursing, pharmacy and dentistry.

In 2003, The Country Doctor Museum was gifted to East Carolina University’s Medical and Health Sciences Foundation and is currently managed by the William E. Laupus Health Sciences Library at ECU. The Museum’s scholarship, exhibits and programs have flourished under ECU’s stewardship. It enlightens students studying health care with the history of their chosen profession and offers practical, hands-on experiences for students of public history, artifact conservation and education.

The legacy of country doctors, as preserved by the Museum, shares a close affinity to the guiding principles of ECU’s Brody School of Medicine (BSOM) to increase the supply of primary care physicians in North Carolina and improve the health status of her citizens. The BSOM is the nation’s top ranked school for graduating family physicians. It is also in the top 10% of U.S. medical schools whose graduates go on to practice in rural and underserved communities. The Museum’s artifacts give evidence of the country doctor’s ingenuity, dedication and spirit. These traditions of innovation and commitment are carried on by modern medical school graduates.

Historical Collection

The Museum’s collection illustrates a story of change and advancement in rural America’s medical history from the early 1800s through the WWII era. The first stop on a guest’s guided tour is the “Apothecary Room” featuring long-forgotten remedies, blood-letting instruments, and decorative show globes. Show globes (an early symbol of the pharmacy) were placed in the front windows or on counters of shops in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to inform customers that someone working in the store could compound medicine for them. Museum guests are also treated to a pill-rolling demonstration to explain how country doctors made their own medications.

Other exhibit highlights include Civil War era surgical instruments, prosthetic limbs and a country doctor’s financial ledger showing how the doctor accepted all sorts of items such as peaches, corn and ham, to settle his patients’ accounts. Many patients did not have cash to pay the doctor at the time of service so they paid on their account as they could afford to do so. The ledger documents the doctor’s close interaction with community members, especially during times of crisis, and reveals a dedication to meet the needs of the sick.

The Museum’s nursing history collection centers on 3-year diploma nursing programs that flourished throughout the country until the 1970s. Florence Nightingale lamps, student nurse uniforms and a variety of nursing caps help interpret the history of this storied profession. A late 19th century midwifery set harkens back to a time when trained and lay midwifes were critically important to the health of newborns and new mothers in rural communities.

In 2011, a turn-of-the-century dental office collection was donated to the Museum to commemorate the work of rural dentists and to celebrate the opening of Ross Hall at ECU’s School of Dental Medicine. Dr. Milford, a dentist from Poolesville, Maryland, graduated from dental school in 1898 and acquired the “New Columbia Ritter Dental Chair” for his home office. His collection of examining instruments, amalgam supplies and a foot-pedal dental engine give clues to his daily work. Dr. Milford’s collection was brought to North Carolina by Dr. Roger Sears, the first dentist to open a practice in Kitty Hawk. Dr. Sears graciously donated the Milford collection to The Country Doctor Museum.

Carriage House Surprises

The Museum’s Carriage House is filled with country doctor’s buggies and antique cars that stand in quiet testament to the often difficult travels made by country doctors while making house calls. Stories from the past tell of country doctors who illuminated farmhouse windows with their vehicle headlights for surgeries performed on the family’s kitchen table.

The Carriage House is also home to the museum’s polio display featuring an iron lung and other artifacts dating back to a time when this devastating disease crippled children and communities during summertime epidemics. Over the years visiting school children, not familiar with polio, have guessed the iron lung to be an incubator, washing machine or tanning bed. These students pay close attention when they discover that children and young adults had to live in these respirators years ago. The iron lung is a powerful teaching aid in educating a new generation about the dangers of old diseases.

Making a Difference

In addition to guided tours, The Country Doctor Museum also offers in-classroom visits to regional elementary schools, “House Calls in the School Halls.” Students rotate through hands-on activity stations where they learn about stethoscopes, discovering artifacts, using mortar and pestles and the math behind pill rolling. The Museum’s annual autumn event, “History Alive” brings hundreds of visitors to Bailey for the day to enjoy activities and displays from area museums and historic sites, historical re-enactors and horse drawn carriage rides.

Recently, the Museum began hosting mobile health care units to make medical services more accessible. A mobile mammography unit visited to accommodate twenty women, many of whom had not previously undergone a mammogram. Additional site visits from organizations offering dental, kidney and health screening mobile units are planned for the coming year.

Plan Your Visit

With admission, Museum guests receive a guided tour, usually lasting 45-60 minutes. Tours are offered every hour, on the hour from 10am-3pm, Tuesday through Saturday. Many guests stop for a tour while traveling along the nearby I-95 corridor, while others enjoy a daytrip to Bailey. Please call The Country Doctor Museum at 252-235-4165 or visit the Museum’s website, for additional information.

By Annie Anderson
Director & Head Curator
The Country Doctor Museum

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