Curating the Weird History of Medicine

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Janet Wulf, librarian, medical library, Cedars-Sinai
Janet Wulf has worked at Cedars-Sinai for more than 4 decades, most of that time in the Medical Library.

Janet Wulf’s desk is a bit unusual.

Between a printer and bottle of hand sanitizer is a life-size glass replica of a human head. On top of the transparent cranium sits a spongy gray brain, the size of a child’s fist. Within arm’s reach of the desk is a small model of a human body and its acupuncture points.

“I bought the head at Ross [Dress for Less],” says Janet, an administrative services associate in the Medical Library who has worked at Cedars-Sinai for 42 years. “I got the brain from a vendor.”

The scavenged items, like so many strange and exotic earlier ones, will only temporarily reside on her desk, which functions more as a runway to the library’s main display case. This particular collection is earmarked for an upcoming exhibit on the headache, which also will feature vintage pill boxes and a 1972 research paper entitled “The Headache in History, Literature, and Legend.”

A driving force

Her desk reflects the bright and curious mind that has curated it for decades. With an inquisitive energy and a wry sense of humor, Janet has established herself as an indispensable fixture in the Medical Library. Staging the library’s popular exhibits is just the start of her duties, which include purchasing, cataloging, circulation, event planning, and organizing an ongoing lecture series.

tins, aspirin, antique, medical history, pain relief
Vintage containers for headache remedies ready for an upcoming exhibit.

“She’s a driving force for the library,” says Janet Hobbs, the library’s manager. “She’s just super creative and very interested in politics, history, and music. She’s been an invaluable way for us to engage with our users in different and meaningful ways.”

On any given day, Janet Wulf engages in a host of traditional library duties: everything from answering questions at the reference desk, registering new library patrons, and cataloging the facility’s 25,000 books to helping medical students hunt down obscure references in one of the library’s 22,000 electronic medical journals.

When Janet arrived in 1975, one year before the merging of Cedars of Lebanon and Mount Sinai Hospital into Cedars-Sinai, she didn’t start out in the library.

Jobs for new college graduates were hard to come by and the hospital needed phone operators as it transitioned from the switchboard phones to a modern-day telecommunications system. So Janet—armed with an English degree from Cal State Northridge—applied for the job and was hired.

“People were asking stuff like, ‘Can I speak to the epidemiologist?’ And I’d go, ‘What?'” she laughs. “I had to learn all the medical terminology.”

Foreign Objects Removed From Human Airways

Objects Removed From Human Airways was the title of one of Janet Wulf’s previous exhibits in the Medical Library. The objects included:

  • Meat impacted in esophagus
  • Fishbone in larynx
  • Pin in trachea
  • Chicken bone in esophagus
  • Safety pin in esophagus
  • Bone in right bronchus
  • Peanut in bronchus
  • Sandbur in right bronchus
  • Bone; forceps tip in esophagus
  • Rabbit thigh in esophagus
  • Penny in esophagus
  • Nickel in esophagus
  • Potato in trachea
  • Jigsaw puzzle piece in esophagus
  • Corn kernel in right bronchus
  • Dog tag in esophagus
  • Open safety pin in esophagus
  • Glass bead in right main esophagus
  • Eggshell in larynx
  • Nickel in esophagus
  • Quarter in esophagus
  • Screw in right main bronchus
  • Sewing machine bobbin in esophagus
  • Whistle in esophagus
  • Upholstery tack in left bronchus
  • Nutshell in larynx

(This list was compiled in commemoration of Barney M. Kully, MD, 1896-1975.)

She later worked in admissions before landing in the Medical Library in the late 1980s. Back then, card catalogs were still in use and copies were made using a mimeograph machine.

“The correction fluid smell would make you dizzy,” she says. “It was awful and messy. I had gloves and a lab coat and ink flying.”

Enlightened interest

For a sense of what makes Janet tick, library patrons need look no further than the main display case just inside the library entrance. About 6 times a year, she and her colleagues set up a new exhibit to showcase the library’s archives. And it’s Janet’s quirky sensibilities that flavor what patrons see, read, and learn from them.

She fondly recalls a display on western frontier medicine which included her own cowboy and horse models, a Stetson hat, an advertisement for snake oil remedies, and a wanted poster. To invoke a bit more Wild West realism, she drizzled fake blood left over from Halloween on some rags she slung over the side of an old tin bowl.

“I sort of have an interesting sense of humor,” she says with a smile.

Library visitors who saw her “Foreign Objects Removed from Human Airways” exhibit would agree. Other exhibit topics she’s helped bring to life include Civil War medicine, healthcare ethics, patent medicine bottles, and a history of Cedars-Sinai.

That historical look at the medical center showcased commemorative keys to the hospital next to prehistoric bones excavated during hospital construction and a collection of maps of the facility dating back to 1938.

To give it a splash of color and fun, Janet threw in a Mount Sinai Hospital brochure featuring a yellow convertible, circa 1954. Nearby, she displayed a hospital café menu from 1962 that advertised a 10-cent cup of coffee and a 75-cent hamburger.

“The prices were just so ridiculous,” says Janet, whose interests outside of work include horses and classic Hollywood cinema. “But I hope when people come away from that exhibit or any others, they leave with a sense of enlightened interest.”

It’s Janet’s quirky sensibilities that flavor what library visitors see, read, and learn.

While many of the items on display come from the library’s collection, some of it comes from Janet’s own stash of vintage books and assorted knickknacks.

While antiquing recently with her sister, Janet found some vintage tins and bottles that held analgesia medications for headaches. That served as the inspiration for the upcoming exhibit on the history of the headache.

“The history of medicine is just fascinating,” she says. “It’s one of my favorite topics here in the library.”

Janet Wulf, collection, medical library, display, manager
Janet Wulf sits behind a table of materials for an upcoming library display.

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