From tonsil guillotines to foot-driven dental drills

Aug 22, 2011 by


If you’ve spent any time living or working in Huntington, W.Va., you come upon the ‘Touma‘ name. I’ve long admired the Touma Near East Collection at Huntington Museum of Art (one of the best small, but energetic museums for many a mile, especially with its soothing arboretum). The Near East collection features more than 400 works of art, much of it donated by the Syrian-born doctors, Joseph B. and Omayma Touma. The collection includes objects from the Middle East, Ottoman Turkey,  North Africa, Moorish Spain and beyond.

The Near East Collection also features a stunning full-size recreation called the Damascus room, with a gorgeous marble floor and impressive hand-carved walls and ceilings inlaid with mother-of-pearl by Damascus artisans, as my Gazette colleague Sara Busse describes in this story. The room has for years sorely tempted my resolve not to leap the exhibit barrier, go recline in the space and fire up a hookah filled with apricot tobacco while contemplating my kingdom.

Part of the Lee Pharmacy inside the Touma Medical Museum | douglas imbrogno photo | click bigger

Yet I was unaware of another remarkable collection amassed by Dr. Omayma Touma, the national-calibre Touma Medical Museum, found on an upper floor of a building off a plaza between 3rd and 4th avenues in Huntington. It’s full with treasures like a 500-year-old medical tome from Venice, a doctor’s touring Model T, a world-class ear trumpet collection (who knew such a thing existed in the West Virgina hills?), an entire historic pharmacy and not a few harrowing devices from medicine’s early days. I apologize in advance if the tonsil “guillotine” demonstration disturbs your sleep – but be thankful for how far we’ve come, eh?

When I heard Sara had done the story, then read it pre-publication, it sounded like just the thing for a video. I spent an enjoyable hour with the knowledgeable doctor and the video above resulted (the soundtrack is  “Parallel Universe” by The Flow). The museum is not generally open to the public, except on special occasions, although Dr. Touma told me has been contemplating trying to open it a day or two a week. To inquire about a visit, e-mail huntear

Here’s an excerpt from Sara’s story in this past Sunday Gazette-Mail, which I recommend you read in whole as it portrays the history of how far medical practice has come:

By SARA BUSSE, Sunday Gazette-Mail, August 21, 2011 | … A practicing physician for 40 years, Touma’s fascination with medical artifacts started with one simple ear trumpet he purchased nearly 30 years ago.

“I’m fascinated by the progress of medicine … as far as deafness and hearing,” he said, pulling out an assortment of the old-fashioned hearing aids from an antique display case. He has one of the largest collections of ear trumpets in the world, with hundreds of examples.

The earliest ones are made from seashells. He has one made from ivory (“This was a rich lady’s ear trumpet”), a black one for funerals, one with a long tube that was used during meetings so the listener could move the trumpet to focus on different speakers.

Touma exhibits childlike joy when he shows one trumpet with eyeglasses attached.

“See, you can use it to hear, and then if you couldn’t see, well, you use the glasses.” Another one in the collection is made into a cane.

“If you’re getting old and you need a cane, and you also have hearing loss …,” Touma said, demonstrating both aspects of the instrument.

“I graduated from one ear trumpet to all of these,” he said, scanning the extensive array. “Then I went for the ENT stuff. As I was doing more ear, nose and throat work, I got into the history of medicine.”

That led to the purchase of an entire 19th-century apothecary — Lee’s Pharmacy, in Pittsburgh — and 1,000 books, some from the 15th century, through the early 20th century, just a few of the thousands of items in the exhibit. … | READ ON

The Persian polymath Avicenna, commonly known as Ibn Sina, wrote medical books that became standard medical texts at many a Medieval university. | douglas imbrogno photo | click bigger


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