5 questions with…Dittrick Museum of Medical History curator Jim Edmonson

Jim Edmonson CWRUWhen Jim Edmonson accepted the position as curator of the Dittrick Museum of Medical History, he thought his stint would be short-lived—two years, tops.

That was 1981. Today, Edmonson still reigns over the museum, which he’s helped grow from a doctors’ museum to a more universal health and medicine historical collection.

Over the years, the museum and its exhibits—notably the Percy Skuy Collection on the History of Contraception—have earned plenty of national attention, including being named among the most fascinating medical museums by The Boston Globe last year.

As the Dittrick Museum, located in the Allen Memorial Medical Library, continues to grow, Edmonson continues to plan for its future: Within the next two years, he hopes to revamp the main gallery to focus on the history of childbirth.

“I see it as a natural complement to the contraceptive gallery,” Edmonson explained. “The history of childbirth would be kind of the flip side of that coin—if you do choose to have children, what’s that experience like, how has it changed over time and how has technology altered that experience?”

One of the cornerstones of that new exhibit will be one of Edmonson’s favorite items: a midwifery manikin from about 1780. After generations of midwives shared delivery knowledge and information by word of mouth, midwifery schools were established in the mid-18th century. With a manikin like the one now on display in the museum, midwives could use a model rather than a living person to learn how to safely reposition a baby and promote a safe delivery.

The manikin, which also came with a 1769 midwifery manual, was a “truly unique opportunity I didn’t want to let pass by,” he said. So he petitioned for the funds to purchase the manikin.

About 99 percent of the museum’s items, however, are donated, Edmonson said. Many come from families of doctors and nurses who owned their tools. So beyond just seeing the different tools and equipment they used, Edmonson loves connecting the items to their owners.

“When you know who used the material, you can go back and do research about their lives and careers; you can create meaning around the materials,” he said. “To know who used these things and what the technology was like in their lifetimes—it just makes the material come alive.”

Learn more about Edmonson in this week’s five questions—and then stop by the Dittrick Museum to meet him in person (or stop by Veale Center, where you can find him playing squash four days a week).

1. What was the first album you ever purchased, and what was the medium (record, cassette, CD, etc.)?
It was probably a Beatles record, on vinyl: Meet the Beatles. That one probably came out in 1964, and I graduated high school in 1969. All of the songs on there—they’re all great. They’re iconic. I think it’s fun now that another generation can listen to this music and still think it’s fantastic.

2. What do you think should have won “Best Picture” at the Oscars—whether or not it was nominated?
That’s such a tough call. I really think they picked the right movie, [Argo]. That movie had me on the edge of my seat the entire time. It was so well paced. You feel wrung out at the end.

I think Silver Linings Playbook was a really fantastic movie too that dealt with a very emotionally troubling topic in a very uplifting but realistic way. And I really liked Zero Dark Thirty too. It was a great year for film.

3. What moment at Case Western Reserve stands out as most memorable (so far)?
I would say when Percy Skuy said he would give us his contraception collection. He’d narrowed it down to three museums—very respectable, top-flight museums—and made a visit to each place to assess which institution offered the greatest potential for that collection. And he chose us.

It was important because I saw that collection as being an important catalyst for change. What I didn’t know at that time was that I’d develop a long friendship with him. Last year gave us $100,000 to endow a lecture in his name, and that meant so much—it told me he was gratified with what we’d done to support our endeavors. That collection was real game changer for us.

4. What is one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?
That I can speak French. When I was 15 years old, I spent a summer in Miquelon Island, off of Newfoundland, and lived in a fishing village of about 600 people as part of an immersion language program. By the end of the summer I was fluent in French.

The immersion, for me, was critical. Until you’re really thrown in the deep water, it’s hard to [pick up a language]. We each lived with a family that didn’t speak English. They were fisher people, fishing for cod and mackerel on the banks. It was a hard life but they were very kind and welcoming to us.

Every day, they would go home and have lunch and then have a siesta period. They had big stacks of comic books—Asterix and Tintin—and I would read them cover to cover over the lunch hour. It was great because I was improving my French but also learning about the pop culture.

5. What is your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?
The thing I like best is the opportunity students have to be in small classes and be taught by and really get to know their professors. I went to University of Delaware with 16,000 students, and there were a lot of courses taught by TAs and the classes were huge. But in many departments here, you have immediate access to and high-quality interactions with your professors.

I also love the interaction we can have with students. We have a number of students who work in the museum here on different projects, and it’s been a hugely rewarding thing to have them around the museum. It makes the place alive.