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Spread History, Not Germs: Visiting the Museum of Health Care at Kingston

Written By: Patricia Roussel

Many invaluable lessons have emerged since the beginning of March 2020, when the world stopped at the hands of COVID-19. Whether it was the at-home coffee luxuries of online work or the relief of seeing toilet paper on store shelves, one thing can be sure: healthcare affects all of us and bends history to will. This was my mindset visiting the Museum of Health Care at Kingston this past summer. Aside from my expired First Aid training, binged Grey’s Anatomy, and the odd Advil, I can firmly say that my background in medicine or medical history was very slim. This paired my globally shared COVID story, I did not know what to expect when arriving at the Museum of Health Care at Kingston – located on the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and the Huron-Wendat peoples.

Upon arrival, I was surprised to find the museum was sandwiched between Kingston General Hospital and surrounding Queen’s University buildings. I had walked Stuart Street daily to get to class or the library and never knew the museum was a right there! What first caught my attention about the museum was its limestone exterior – a beautiful reoccurring theme that amplifies Kingston’s rich historic roots. I entered the museum through its wheelchair-accessible entrance, where I was greeted by friendly staff and a welcomed gust of air conditioning! From here, I peered down a long hallway with wartime medical posters hanging from the ceiling and exhibit rooms on all sides. In the middle, there was a corridor that opened into a visitor information desk, gift shop, and more exhibit spaces. Here is where I met some very knowledgeable staff and volunteers who introduced me to history that helped to situate me in the museum’s story. 

The beautiful 1904 exterior of the Ann Baillie Building National Historic Site of Canada.

I learned that the limestone building is known as the Ann Baillie Building, a National Historic Site of Canada. Constructed in 1904, the building was a dormitory for 26 nursing students of the then Kingston General Hospital School of Nursing. With the grandeur of its Beaux-Arts architectural style, the residence was designed to attract young women of means to pursue a nursing career. Being a student also swayed to Queen’s due to its exterior glamour, I fully understood why a young woman would see the beauty of this building and want to study here. Only, residing here did not come without its costs – like not being able to marry while growing their nursing careers or always keeping their stiff uniforms pristine and perfectly white.

Portrait of Ann Baillie located inside the museum.

Many women passed through the halls of Ann Baillie Building, named after a beloved superintendent of the nursing school who served in WWI, until its closure in 1974 when the nursing residence moved to Waldron Tower across the street. This background on the building, its purpose, and deep-rooted connection to the medical community grounded my perspective – I would highly encourage asking similar questions upon arrival or taking advantage of a free 25-mintue guided tour facilities to gain a fuller understanding of the museum and its significance from inside and out! If you’re attending with a larger group, be sure to book ahead!

As I meandered through the different exhibit spaces, I found my eyes locking with different artifacts and asking myself the five w’s (who, what, why, when, and why). When talking with the Museum of Health Care’s Programming and Communications Coordinator, Claire Notman, she explained that “each artifact holds a story” and how these stories are interpreted differently by each visitor. Apparently, many visitors have medical backgrounds or have family connections to the building, and staff and volunteers find it intriguing to hear from retired doctors who remember using wooden-handled medical tools or nurses who stayed in the room that is now an office space. For me, this really showcases the museum’s strong ties with the community and dedication to engaging with new perspectives – something I always look for and admire about heritage presentation.

‘Lived-in’ bedroom set up as it would have been in while the nurse dormitory was still in operation.

The exhibits themselves expressed many themes, so there was no particular order you had to go in. One room was geared toward wartime medicine and the rapid advancements in healthcare made during those dark periods. One artifact that interested me was a wartime portable, foot-powered, dental drill – just the thought of that made me want to go home and floss! Other exhibits included ‘quacks’ which were home remedied ‘medicines’ that did more harm than good, a nurse’s bedroom with a ‘lived-in’ set-up, a luxurious doctor’s office with some familiar and other alien-looking tools, and an iron lung that I first guessed was a tanning bed!

Each of these exhibits prompted thoughtful conversation as I reflected on my experiences in our modern healthcare system and as a woman in the workforce. Firstly, looking at these artifacts through my modern medical lens, I could fully understand why going to the doctor was once considered a daunting event – some of those large test tubes and x-ray machines were spooky looking to the unknowing eye! In comparison with the small instruments we see in today’s doctor’s office, this is a great testament to the esteemed innovation in medical systems – especially over these past few years for which the museum plans to update their vaccine exhibit to explore these rapid developments. Also, we see gender playing a smaller role in determining career paths as women forge equality and representation in many male-dominated fields.

 All and all, I was very impressed with my visit to the Healthcare Museum at Kingston. The wonderful staff and volunteers have created a very warm, welcoming, and educational environment for all to walk away having learned something new – I sure did! Whether you are looking for a fun weekend activity with your family or are a history student looking to get more engaged in heritage presentation – the Healthcare Museum is the place for you! All entry is FREE and hiring for student positions begins this fall.

Not to say that after my visit I would feel confident performing open-heart surgery, but I walk away with some fascinating factoids on medical history and the Kingston community!

Museum exhibit space of a luxurious doctor’s office.

To learn more about the Healthcare Museum, please visit their website or social media pages for upcoming events and operating hours:

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