When Chelsea Vaughn joined the Clatsop County Historical Society as a curator last year, she started getting acquainted with the collections.
What began as a fascination with medical oddities — examination tables with built-in stirrups for high heels, early electromagnetic diathermy machines and eye-testing equipment — led her on a deep dive into the region’s medical history.
Her first exhibit, “Held for Observation: The Evolution of Medical Care in Clatsop County,” will be up through the end of the year at the Heritage Museum.
Vaughn’s exhibit, sponsored by Columbia Memorial Hospital, examines the history of local hospitals, starting with a maritime hospital dating to the mid-19th century.
The exhibit recounts the Sisters of Charity of Providence, a Catholic organization that in 1880 started Astoria’s first general hospital in the converted Arrigoni Hotel at 15th and Duane streets. St. Mary’s expanded into a grand Victorian at 16th Street in 1905 and evolved into what is now the Owens-Adair Apartments by 1931.
The exhibit touches on Columbia Memorial, started by the Finnish Lutheran community in 1927 at 16th Street and Franklin Avenue. The newer hospital group eventually bought out St. Mary’s and expanded into the Owens-Adair building, until the current location of the hospital opened in 1977.
Vaughn highlights the impact of early female physicians, from Dr. Bethenia Owens-Adair, who claimed to be the first traditionally trained female physician in the Pacific Northwest, to Dr. Nellie Smith-Vernon, who advised Astoria during a Spanish flu outbreak during World War I that killed more than 110 people.
She illustrates nursing education, which she said has been around in some manner for 75 of the past 110 years. St. Mary’s operated a nursing school from 1905 to 1948, with Clatsop Community College starting its program in 1983.
The exhibit recounts the Patrick v. Burget antitrust case that reached from Astoria to the U.S. Supreme Court. Local surgeon Timothy Patrick accused private partners at the former Astoria Clinic, which housed 75 percent of doctors in the city, of colluding against him. The Supreme Court ruled in Patrick’s favor in 1988, along the way bankrupting many of the other doctors and putting the clinic out of business.
Vaughn can’t recount the massive number of hours she spent researching the county’s medical history, but said it was fascinating to see the weird contraptions and pseudoscience patients were exposed to in treatment.
She hopes people come away from the exhibit both edified and glad that health care has come so far.
“There’s always this reassurance people feel that medical practice has evolved, that things aren’t as barbaric or horrific as they maybe once were,” she said.