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A Portal to the Past: New Exhibition Highlights the History of Medicine Collection

Wednesday, February 14th, 2024

As you enter the third floor of Silverman Library, you’ll encounter some unusual sights this semester. A replica of an early 19th-century plague mask, a mid-19th-century mechanical vaccinator used for smallpox vaccinations, and an 18th-century trepan, a surgical instrument used for skull surgery—these are just a few of the rare and intriguing medical items featured in the University Libraries newest exhibition, A Portal to the Past: The Robert L. Brown History of Medicine Collection.

The exhibition reveals to visitors a small selection of the vast materials housed in the History of Medicine Collection located in historic Abbott Hall on UB’s South Campus. From third-century A.D. Roman surgical instruments to 19th– and 20th-century materials documenting the history of UB’s medical and health sciences schools, this distinctive collection encompasses an abundance of rich historical resources intended to educate and inspire students, researchers, scholars, and a wide, global community. Established in 1972, and named in 1985 for Robert L. Brown, MD, former associate dean of the School of Medicine, the collection’s primary focus is on the healthcare professions in Western New York. The collection contains over 20,000 rare medical and scientific books and journals, anatomical models, diagnostic tools and other artifacts documenting healthcare advancements.

“This marks our first large-scale exhibition on the north campus,” says Keith Mages, curator of the History of Medicine Collection. “It’s an incredible opportunity, one that enables engagement with broader audiences likely unfamiliar with the fascinating history of healthcare.”

Arranged in thematic sections of medicine, dentistry, pharmacy and nursing, each area represents a minuscule sampling of the extraordinary resources that can be viewed in the larger collection. Highlights of A Portal to the Past include instruments and works related to the history of neurosurgery; historic photographs and ephemera documenting the international practice of dentistry; a brass mortar and pestle, a desktop snow globe, and packaged herbs and medications representing pharmacy’s past; and an assemblage of books and artifacts relevant to the history of nursing.

“Although our collection of rare books, artifacts, and manuscripts revolve around health and healthcare, we work to remind visitors that our historic materials are direct reflections of the larger societies from which they emerged,” continues Mages. “Who was treated when ill? Who is left out of the narrative? What was done when effective treatment was not available? What was classified as an illness? Questions like these allow our objects to become potent tools, able to provide incredible insights into human innovation, knowledge development, and the fears, paradoxes, and progress of diverse cultures.”

This exhibition exposes visitors to the remarkable resources available in the collection on South Campus, marking a return to a bygone era of medicine. By acquiring, collecting, preserving and exhibiting these treasured resources, the collection seeks to chart the future by exploring the past. A Portal to the Past: The Robert L. Brown History of Medicine Collection will be on display until August 2024.

For more information about this exhibition or to schedule a tour of the Robert L. Brown History of Medicine Collection, please contact Keith Mages, curator of the Robert L. Brown History of Medicine Collection.