the Touma Museum of Medicine 

in Downtown Huntington, West Virginia

Hundreds of years of medical devices & instruments collected over a span of 40 years


Dr. Joe Touma and Ed Dzierzak

Joe Touma is a retired physician with a specialty in otology (the ear).

Ed Dzierzak is the curator of the Touma Museum of Medicine and the former Director of Health Science Library at Marshall University.

Touma's Interest

Where It All Began

Touma started collecting medical instruments about 40 years ago. He started with artifacts related to ears such as ear trumpets for hearing loss. He went from collecting ear trumpets to more ear, nose and throat type of instruments. He got interested in historical medical books (started with ENT and ontology and moved to general medical books), and after a while he got interested in other medical specialties.

"It aroused my fascination by what our ancestors and forefathers could do," Touma said.

When the collection grew, Touma said he had them in boxes he kept at home and his wife wasn't happy about it. He bought a building that was vacant and his daughter Mona suggested he use the empty space for his collection. Pharmacy furniture soon became housing for the collection. The cabinets in the pharmacy are from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, circa 1900-1910. The unique thing about the pharmacy is that it is complete with signage, bottles, cash register, among other things.

Touma gifted the 3,000-some piece collection to Marshall University's School of Medicine in 2017.

"It's an organization I have deep love for," Touma said. "I've supported, taught and had a lot of activities there. We are fortunate to have a dean (Dr. Shapiro) who is extremely interested in the history of medicine. He was very enthusiastic about the idea. It's an amazing progress and he (Dr. Shapiro) convinced Ed Dzierzak to be the curator of the museum."

"When looking at the contents of the museum, you can really understand why medicine is in a great position now," Touma said. "It's that history of progress and great to preserve it for future generations."

Touma said collecting comes in spurts.

"It's when you find the right instrument. I'm not buying much now. The past couple months I bought three or four pieces that we need--like the tourniquets for bleeding  that are about 100 years old. The most exciting thing I found is an X-ray machine that is one of the earliest samples of X-rays. We're still adding to the collection even though it's not mine anymore."

The x-ray machine.
The x-ray machine.

Touma said even though he didn't have formal training in the history of medicine, with experience he has a very good handle of how things are. 

"We have the x-ray bulbs but I've never had them in an x-ray machine. So, I knew we needed this kind of instrument or device. The best market now is on eBay. Before, I relied on a network of antique dealers that dealt with american antiques--most of them in London, New York, Boston--I have this habit of--for four to five minutes--I can go through what's available and every once in awhile I pick up something that I feel is needed."

"Every area of medicine is amazing," Touma said. "What they could do and how they managed to grow and invent and solve their problems--all of them are my favorite. Each one has its own place in the history of medicine."

The oldest pieces, a set of surgical instruments, go back to the Roman Era and are very simple hooks.

Touma said the revolution in medicine was in the mid 19th century until the mid 20th century. 1840-1850 and 1900 there was just tremendous activities in every field. It's not until after World War I--they learned a lot from injuries--gunshot wounds--so they added something new. Also the Civil War--amputations. There are two sets of Civil War amputation sets that were state of the art at their time. That also pushed the invention a little higher. After WWII, we are living in another renaissance in medicine and pharmaceuticals.

The 3,500-4,000 square-foot space houses around 3,000 different medical instruments and devices.
The 3,500-4,000 square-foot space houses around 3,000 different medical instruments and devices.

The Collection

The open space is used for medical and community meetings. At the time it's only open by appointment.

Ed's Role as Curator

Ed said they're working on various things. Right now he's cataloguing the collection. 

"Dr. Touma has a passion here,"Dzierzak said. "It's something that excites him and he really enjoys it. And I'm glad he's been able to put together this collection and that it's in Huntington."

Touma's Own Inventions

Touma said the reason he invented 14 medical devices is from looking at the historic pieces--it told him very clearly if these people are without computers, big manufacturers, that can help you.

"They did what they did, so why not me?" Touma said.

Touma said he would perform a procedure and say "I wish I had this kind of instrument so that I can do this or reach this," so he did the design and contacted the manufacturing people.

He didn't get any financial reward from it.

Touma said one thing that he used a lot and that people all over the country use is the ventilation tube for the ear, the Touma T-tube. 

"It's not a new concept," Touma said. "It's an old concept but I did the modification and now it makes more sense and easier to insert, stays open longer and if it gets filled with blood, you can open it easier. This is the same story we had a hundred-two hundred years ago--just building on each other's knowledge."

"It's very technical," Touma said. "The only thing that affects everyone, everyday are the tubes I invented.  That are much more practical and advanced. It's not a big deal, seriously. It's something that made it easier for me. To be fair, there are a lot of tubes on the market, but this particular one is the tube that stays for a long time in the ear drum. Before my invention, they didn't stay long enough and they would become plugged. Mine makes a lot of difference. Very rarely does it leave a hole in the eardrum. It took months and months of back and forth with the manufacturer-they'd give me a prototype, I would use it and then say "here's what we need to do--thicken it in this area, etc. They nailed it in the end. It was a very interesting, fascinating process, which I have enjoyed in everything I have invented."

Touma said as long as he is alive and kicking, he's going to support the museum and work with Ed and Marshall University School of Medicine Dean Shapiro. 

"This is a very exciting time," Touma said. "Again, it's a great thing for Huntington. Huntington is known for great museums--Huntington Museum of Art, the Heritage Farm Museum, several private collections that have the depth and the breadth of a nice collection--it's a good magnet for tourists."

Touma said there was a boat that came last year and the museum was part of the tour.

"We had maybe 150 people visiting that day," Touma said. "They were impressed. I have seen several doctors and nurses that didn't want to leave. All they had was a two-hour window. We are working on getting trained people (docents) to give the tours. Frankly, we're going to have more tourism in Huntington. We just need to find the right time and touring companies to come to Huntington. By reaching the tipping point, we have what makes it exciting. Ed and I are here, but not continuously. We have big plans. "

Touma said now it has a great variety of instruments, equipments, it represents the specialities in medicine very well. What it lacks is what Ed is doing, cataloguing, which Touma does not know how to do.

"It has the gallery, everything nicely exhibited. Maybe the collection will be 50 pieces more, but more importantly it's going to be open--not to the public in Huntington, West Virginia, but from all over. People in Korea might want to know the history of the stethoscopes. What Ed is doing is having each stethoscope catalogued, history, everything. It's the time of maturity, I call it."

Touma said it all started as a hobby and became a passion. Which led to the donation of this set, which is a positive passion. The worst thing that could happen is the museum to be sold piece at a time. It would have brought a lot of money, but you cannot collect something like this, except someone has 40 years of hard work and excitement. The medical school and Marshall Foundation have solid commitment in writing and in spirit to keep it together and bring it to the next level.

Hannah Swartz, Marshall University.
All rights reserved, 2018.
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