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Rochester Medical Museum moves to new home

Rochester Business Journal
April 11, 2014

On Monday, the Rochester Medical Museum and Archives plans a grand opening at what Kathleen Britton, curator and director of archives, hopes will be the permanent home for the peripatetic collection of local medical memorabilia.

The opening at the museum’s new quarters on an upper floor of the Rochester Academy of Medicine’s East Avenue mansion comes after months of work by Britton and archivist Robert Dickson, arranging exhibits and settling the museum’s collections into the new space.

“Hopefully we’ll see an uptick in visitors,” Britton said. “We love having outside visitors.”

A feature that could raise the museum’s profile is the academy’s 250-seat auditorium. Britton plans to use the space for presentations and public events.

Academy of Medicine executive director Suzanne Welch hopes the museum’s addition will raise the academy’s profile as well, bringing more visitors to its historic headquarters.

The academy mounts most continuing medical education sessions for area doctors and sees its primary mission as keeping the medical community and the community at large up to date on developments in medical science and patient care, Welch said.

Still, she added, it also often helps to “reflect on where we have been.”

Part of Rochester General Health System, the museum was housed for many years at Rochester General Hospital, where it mounted exhibits in the hospital’s corridors. In 2005, the museum moved to Humboldt Street, where it set up exhibits in a sprawling but out-of-the way complex shared with RGHS back-office functions.

In the Humboldt Street digs, the medical museum participated in the well-attended open houses held the first Friday of each month by the Memorial Art Gallery and a varying cast of local galleries and arts organizations.

“We got a decent amount of traffic,” Britton said, conceding that the artwork of friends and relatives of RGHS employees exhibited at the medical museum accounted for much of its First Friday attendance.

The museum began life as a collection of documents, photographs and memorabilia tracing Rochester General Hospital’s 150-year history.

Some 22,000 of its photographs document predecessors of the present 528-bed hospital, such as the General Hospital School of Nursing, which was established in 1888 and closed in 1964.

Another collection traces the history of Genesee Hospital from its 1869 establishment to its closure in 2001. Many still remember the largely demolished Genesee Hospital as it last stood. Fewer are aware of its earliest incarnation as the Rochester Homeopathic Hospital.

The first of several local hospitals offering homeopathic treatments, the Rochester Homeopathic Hospital was established largely through the efforts of Elizabeth Sibley, the wife of Western Union Telegraph Co. founder Hiram Sibley.

Popular in the 19th century, homeopathy today is a scantly practiced alternative system of medicine involving treatments in which patients are dosed with tinctures of various substances most commonly diluted in a 1 percent solution.

After seeing a woman slip on the ice outside her East Avenue mansion, Elizabeth Sibley became concerned that no nearby hospital existed and led a drive to establish a homeopathic hospital.

The Rochester Homeopathic Hospital no longer exists, but another 19th century city homeopathic hospital evolved into Highland Hospital.

The Rochester Medical Museum is not the only local storehouse of local medical lore. The Rochester Historical Society and the University of Rochester’s Rush Rhees Library, to name two others, also document the region’s medical history. But the medical museum can claim the distinction of being the only local institution solely devoted to it.

Britton expects to see the Rochester Medical Museum’s collection expand with materials garnered from Unity Health System after the systems merge, which is expected this year.

Materials from Batavia’s United Memorial Medical Center and Clifton Springs Hospital & Clinic, whose 19th-century origin traces to a spa featuring healing sulfur springs, also will be part of the merged RGHS-Unity system and could come under the museum’s curatorship.

Until the middle of last year, the medical museum and the back-office groups on Humboldt Street were slated to move to RGHS’ Riedman Campus. A chance meeting between RGHS president and CEO Mark Clement and the Academy of Medicine’s Welch changed the museum’s trajectory. It is a development Britton and Dickson applaud.

The Riedman Campus sits in Irondequoit on Kings Highway and East Ridge Road in buildings RGHS took over from ESL Federal Credit Union after ESL moved its main office downtown. The Riedman complex would have allowed the museum more display and storage space, Britton said. But weighing space against a greater opportunity to lure visitors, she prefers the latter.

4/11/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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