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The Auckland medical museum that's like a house of horrors

Curator Juliet Hawkins stands beside the obstetric and gynaecology display, holding a 1930s-era bladder evacuator “for removal of fragments”.

It looks like a chamber of horrors, but the tools of the trade showcased in this curious collection were once at the forefront of medical care.

Sir Ernest Davis was a man of many gifts. Three years after presenting the Queen Mother with his champion racehorse Bali Ha’i in 1958, he gave Auckland Hospital an entire building to house its refurbished medical library.

Now holding more than 4000 historical books, the library has also become the repository of a fascinating collection of outdated medical equipment and remedies and, from 2015, a centre for conferences and lectures.

Walk into its hushed atmosphere and you find yourself back in an era of sometimes grisly medical practices. Once, there was a time when a patient’s skull would be drilled into with a brace and bit, their head clamped into an unforgiving stainless-steel harness. And, until the 1930s, X-rays were done with bulbous, lead-laden cathode ray tubes. 

An amputation kit dating back to the late 1800s.

The X-ray tubes, on display in a separate cabinet, were used by Balclutha-born radiologist Dr Bruce Mackenzie, the son of Sir Thomas Mackenzie, who served briefly as Prime Minister in 1912. He set up a radiology practice in Auckland in 1921 and, according to the Lancet in 1950, “played no small part in raising the status of radiology as a specialty in New Zealand”. As for the fearsome tools of early obstetricians and gynaecologists, best avert your eyes.

For Davis – a millionaire brewery baron, philanthropist and one-time mayor of Auckland – it wasn’t all racehorses and libraries; his legacy lives on through many bequests to his beloved city. Appreciative of the care given by the medical fraternity to his ailing wife Marion, who died in May 1955, he gifted a fine brick building in the grounds of Auckland Hospital to replace the cramped existing medical library. 

According to Dr Jon Simcock, retired neurologist and former chair of the library’s board of management, Davis “didn’t want a Taj Mahal memorial to his wife; he just wanted to give a library to the doctors of Auckland”. Moreover, he set up a generous endowment fund to ensure its continued operation.

X-ray tubes used by pioneering Auckland radiologist Bruce Mackenzie, who died in 1950.

Curator Juliet Hawkins has run what is now known as the Ernest and Marion Davis Library and Lecture Halls since 2001. Displays are dedicated to cardiology, plastic surgery, orthopaedics, ophthalmology, anaesthesia, ear, nose and throat, dentistry, phrenology, radiology and neurosurgery.

An array of more than 100 glazed ceramic apothecary jars were sourced from Britain by one-time superintendent of Green Lane Hospital Dr James Newman; one jar once contained oil of mastiche, made from the resin of the mastic tree, a dose of which would apparently “strengthen the heart, help a cough, and stay your vomiting”. Then there’s a complete 1901 Materia Medica cabinet, with 250 specimens of what Hawkins describes as “plants, minerals, and bottles of strange, ground-up stuff”. 

Left: A portable electrocardiograph machine from the 1960s. Right: An image from a medical book.

Mostly it’s medical historians who come through the doors. Some medical students “can’t be bothered with all this archaic stuff”, says Hawkins, but others are fascinated – and also relieved they don’t have to wield what some would see as instruments of torture. She’s happy for small groups to visit, but only by appointment. The squeamish should think twice. 

This article was first published in the September 2018 issue of North & South.