A visit to COMA, Tasmania’s medical museum

Amanda Lyons

6/07/2018 1:56:28 PM

Dr Philip Thomson, Chair of the Collection of Medical Artefacts in Tasmania, talks to newsGP about the museum’s fascinating artefacts and mission to educate.

Brown’s Muscles, published in 1698, previously belonged to Hobart’s first female GP, Dr Christine Walch. (Image reproduced courtesy of COMA Tasmania)
Brown’s Muscles, published in 1698, previously belonged to Hobart’s first female GP, Dr Christine Walch. (Image reproduced courtesy of COMA Tasmania)

Dr Philip Thomson likes to ensure that people are doing more than just looking at objects from the past when they tour the Collection of Medical Artefacts museum – COMA – in Tasmania. He wants to make sure they are having an experience.
‘I like to dress up in a long black coat with a winged collar and tie and give them a performance of a mid-Victorian doctor showing them around, so we have a bit of fun,’ Dr Thomson, Chair of COMA, told newsGP.
COMA first began as a collection at the Australian Medical Association’s house in Hobart during the 1970s. When the building was sold 10 years ago, however, the collection began a peripatetic life in boxes.
But now, after its time in the cardboard wilderness, COMA has a home at Jane Franklin Hall, a residential college of the University of Tasmania in South Hobart. It is run by a nine-person committee and has a paid curator, Liz Bondfield.
Dr Thomson is very pleased to have found a location for the collection, which is now an independent entity.
‘COMA will have a whole new life of its own in the future,’ Dr Thomson said.
The collection uses its exhibits to help visitors reflect on the medical treatment they could have expected in the past, compared to the medicine of today.
‘People seem to go away quite stimulated by the fact that they’ve had a bit of shock and horror; stories about, for example, if you happened to need your leg amputated 160 years ago, and the gruesome-looking instruments to show them how it was done,’ Dr Thomson said.
‘Then we bring them right through to here and now, modern anaesthetics and surgery and things like that.’
A COMA tour can be quite an interactive experience, with visitors often willing to share stories of their own.
‘I think the museum talks to people about contemporary health issues and allows them to share their own experiences as a patient,’ he said. ‘People are very keen to talk on this guided tour, about what they or their family members have been through.’
Dr Thomson would also like to further COMA’s educative role by providing tours to school groups.
‘We’d try and talk about specific areas [schools would] like to deal with. Not necessarily just historical, but also teaching students about the importance of immunisation, contraception, infection prevention, things like that,’ Dr Thomson said.
‘There are people in the community who think that immunisation is dangerous and wrong, so I’d like the opportunity to try and teach that there’s scientific basis for many of the things that we do in our medical care, and try to dispel some of the myths people seem to have about modern medicine.’
COMA’s collection is largely Tasmanian-focused, and contains some interesting pieces from the state’s medical history – including some that have had an impact far beyond its shores.
‘We have a baby apnoea monitor, which was developed by a Tasmanian GP called Dr Jim Frost from Triabunna,’ Dr Thomson said. ‘He invented this in the 1980s, and it led on to cot death research out of the Menzies Centre here in Hobart and successful advice about preventing cot death.
‘His research has had worldwide effects. It shows that GPs can be very enterprising and innovative.’

COMA-Article-3.jpgThe baby apnoea monitor, which was a precursor to greater levels of research into cot death, was invented Tasmanian GP Dr Jim Frost in the 1980s. (Image reproduced courtesy of COMA Tasmania)
The collection also features a centuries-old book that has a connection to a landmark person in Tasmanian medical history.
‘It’s an anatomical book, Brown’s Muscles, printed in 1698,’ Dr Thomson said.
‘It used to be owned by Dr Christine Walch, the first female GP in Hobart.
‘The practice that she established in the 1920s is still going, in Barrack Street. It is entirely women doctors in the practice.’
There are also plenty of medical instruments that can help paint a vivid picture of procedures our forebears had to endure in earlier times.
‘We’ve got an 1840s boxed surgical instrument set in red velvet with three amputation knives and saws. It has obstetric forceps in it and a trephine,’ Dr Thomson said. ‘ It’s in a wonderful condition and it really does give a story of surgery 170 years ago, what would have been used on the convicts and other early settlers here in Hobart.’

COMA-Article-2.jpgThis boxed instrument, circa 1840s, is one of COMA’s more vivid reminders of the somewhat rudimentary nature of surgical procedures in centuries past. (Image reproduced courtesy of COMA Tasmania)
COMA is currently open on Mondays between 10.00 am – 4.00 pm, and guided tours can be provided at any time by appointment.
‘I’m very happy to show people through if they’re coming to have a wonderful holiday in Tasmania,’ Dr Thomson said.
‘If they’re coming to see our gorgeous scenery and eat our delicious food and drink our wonderful wine, they can come and look at COMA, too.’

Collection of Medical Artefacts Medical history medical museum

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