Robert Kravetz, MD, Discusses His Collection
Robert Kravetz, MD, Discusses His Collection

UA College of Medicine – Phoenix Uses the History of Medicine to Teach Future Physicians

Lindsay Roberts
Lindsay Roberts
Robert Kravetz, MD, Discusses His Collection
Robert Kravetz, MD, Discusses His Collection
Antique Tools Help Students Understand the Evolution of Medical Practice

While medicine has evolved immensely over the years, a University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix faculty member believes that looking back to old treatments and tools of the trade provide important lessons for future physicians.

The college is home to more than 300 medical antiques curated and owned by Robert Kravetz, MD, a gastroenterologist and clinical professor of Internal Medicine and Medical Humanism.

Glucose Measuring Tool
A Glucose Testing Kit from the 1940s
He has been collecting since 1970, when he bought 6,000 pounds of medical history from a Newburyport, Mass., drugstore that opened in 1845. Thus began his quest for treasures that tell the story of how medical instruments and practices have improved and been refined. Today, his collection numbers 1,500 major pieces.

His personal favorites are a Revolutionary War-era drug chest and a leech jar from the late 1800s.

Among the displays shown in cases throughout the Phoenix Biomedical Campus are tools that allowed doctors to manually count red blood cells, amputation saws, forceps, tonsil dissectors, retractors and sigmoidoscopies.

Some of the pharmaceuticals displayed are still used today, such as nitroglycerin and digitalis — both still treat some heart problems. Many diagnostic devices have advanced over the years, but are used for the same purpose — such as otoscopes to look into the ear, stethoscopes to listen to the heart or lungs, nebulizers for breathing treatments and blood pressure monitors.

Inside the cases are some items that seem counterintuitive to modern medical standards and border on quackery: cigarettes that claim to ease asthma, devices for bloodletting and a violet ray machine used in the 1930s that emitted a purple light and was run over the body.

“Totally worthless,” said Dr. Kravetz of the violet ray machine. “We have so many medicines today, but years ago, there was very little available. That’s why people would use these various products. When there isn’t a beneficial therapy for something, people will try anything.”

Although seemingly unimportant to current medical practice, Dr. Kravetz believes the antiquated devices are an important reminder to today’s physicians in training.

“We have to realize that where we are today is because of all those who have preceded us,” he said. “We have to pay homage to them and give them credit. We also can learn from the medical mistakes of the past, as there have been some drastic things done that have not been beneficial to patients.”

Assorted Tonics from the 1800s
Assorted Tonics from the 1800s
Every student at the College of Medicine – Phoenix has the opportunity to learn about the medical antiques in depth during the elective course, “Independent Study in the History of Medicine.” Dr. Kravetz, who directs the course, gifts each student with a medical antique to research.

The curriculum is based on learning about a medical topic related to the residency program the student plans to pursue.

“I give them free rein to choose whatever topic they wish and try to instill in them the importance of the history of medicine,” he said. “If you don’t know about the past, you don’t know where you are going in the future.”

Dr. Kravetz hopes the gifts from his personal collection will be the beginning of students’ own collections.

He tells the future physicians that “as you go through your four years in medical school, look at the antiques on campus and see how they relate to what you are learning at the present time.”

About the College

Founded in 2007, the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix inspires and trains exemplary physicians, scientists and leaders to optimize health and health care in Arizona and beyond. By cultivating collaborative research locally and globally, the college accelerates discovery in a number of critical areas — including cancer, stroke, traumatic brain injury and cardiovascular disease. Championed as a student-centric campus, the college has graduated 500 physicians, all of whom received exceptional training from nine clinical partners and more than 2,000 diverse faculty members. As the anchor to the Phoenix Biomedical Campus, which is projected to have an economic impact of $3.1 billion by 2025, the college prides itself on engaging with the community, fostering education, inclusion, access and advocacy.