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Live leeches swimming in the jar by the front door are a good introduction to the Country Doctor Museum in Bailey.
Docent Angela Iwaniuk, of Bailey, explains how the parasites were once commonly used for blood-letting back in the day to get rid of the “bad blood.”
“I’m glad they don’t do this anymore,” Iwaniuk said. “I guess they do use leeches in hospitals now because now we know that they have a very valuable chemical that when it mixes with our bloodstream it is a powerful anticoagulant, so when they have to reattach fingers that are cut off or do skin grafts, they will often put leeches near that to help the wound heal because the blood will flow to all parts of the tissue better.”
In the next room, Civil War-era medical instruments fill one cabinet adjacent to another containing antiquated prosthetics.
A glass-encased human skull used as a teaching tool for medical students bookends thick medical journals on childbirth and pharmaceuticals and a 160-year-old edition of Gray’s Anatomy.
“Our exhibits have changed inside the museum,” said Annie Anderson, director and head curator at the museum, which is celebrating its 50th year. “We have had to streamline the story that we tell in the museum, so we have had to rearrange some stuff. We have really tried to keep the character of the museum the way the founders started it. I think it is really stepping back into history. We try to retain that element of it.”
The museum has between 2,500 and 3,000 visitors a year.
The original buildings are actual country doctors’ offices, those of Dr. Howard Franklin Freeman, of Wilson County’s Rock Ridge community, who practiced from 1878 to 1915 and the office of Dr. Henry Brantley, of Nash County’s Stanhope community, who practiced from 1887 to 1940.
“The founders of the museum were able to secure old doctors’ offices that were still standing,” Anderson said. “They were able to move those two buildings to Bailey and reconstructed them to house the collection. That was back in 1967 and then the museum opened to the public on Dec. 8, 1968.”
The museum receives medical paraphernalia and trappings from all over the country.
“Most of our collection is from here in eastern North Carolina,” Anderson said. “We still receive donations from families whose fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers or mothers or grandmothers were doctors, nurses or pharmacists. As each successive generation goes by, the families don’t know what to do with these family treasures, so oftentimes we are able to be a repository for those items.”
The museum is tight on space and has to be careful about what it takes in.
“It is really wonderful to see things that have been tucked away that families realize are of value and will call us and see if we can take it,” Anderson said.
Since 2003, the museum has been managed as part of East Carolina University’s Laupus Health Science Library.
“ECU takes good care of us,” Anderson said. “ECU has a very vibrant health science campus with a medical school, a nursing school, a school of dental medicine, so our collection really fits in nicely with the mission ECU has to graduate family practice doctors, nurses, dentists who will stay in eastern North Carolina in rural counties.”
There are more than 4,000 objects in the collection.
“We have an archive of paper materials that are just as valuable to us as our objects and they are housed at ECU,” Anderson said. “We have probably 1,500 articles in our archive over there.”
Anderson encourages people to come to Bailey to see what the Country Doctor Museum is all about.
“It’s a quirky little museum,” Anderson said. “It’s right in your backyard. A lot of people just haven’t thought about making time in their day to come out and see what we have, but I promise you will not be disappointed.”
On every wall in every room, there are stories to tell about the lives of the country doctors who traveled the dirt roads of North Carolina making house calls for the last 200 years. In one annex, two buggies and two early automobiles used by doctors share space with an early iron lung and a collection of doctors’ bags.
“A lot of it is not a lot different from what we do today in terms of health care for our families,” Anderson said. “There are a lot of surprises in the collection and I think we really try to do our best to make our guests feel welcome and we are so appreciative of their time and I don’t think they will be disappointed.”
Barbara Williams’ great-grandfather was a physician in Anson County around the time of the Civil War and came to the museum with her husband Bill and their grandchildren Ian and Robert Williams.
“My brother has his medicine cabinet and the things that were in it,” Williams said. “I have just always been interested in country doctors. I remember having country doctors myself as a child.”
Williams, of Clayton, said she wished she had come to the museum sooner.
“The best thing for me was watching my grandchildren enjoy it,” Williams said. “It was just all good and they were just so involved with what was going on.”
Tours of the museum, located at 7089 Peele Road in Bailey, are given every hour on the hour from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. They take about 45 to 60 minutes. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and $4 for students.
For more information, visit www.countrydoctormuseum.org or call 252-235-4165.
Located 19 miles west of Wilson on U.S. 264 East and U.S. 264 Alternate East at N.C. 581.
Mayor is Thomas Richards
Population is 563
Incorporated in 1908