First Posted: 4/21/2014
WILKES-BARRE — Before the telephone and long before the Internet, doctors of the Wyoming Valley had a centralized institution of knowledge and gathering place.
The Luzerne County Medical Society was formed in 1861. For more than 150 years, the society has served medical professionals of all kinds in the Valley.
According to a brief history of the organization, 15 practicing physicians residing in Luzerne County held the group’s first meeting on March 4, 1861. Dr. B.H. Throop served as the first president of the organization, alongside two vice presidents and a treasurer.
Mary Lou Miller, executive director of the society, said its objectives haven’t changed much in a century and a half: “To organize the medical profession of Luzerne County in connection with the State Medical Society and the American Medical Association, to promote knowledge for those involved in the healing arts, to advance the character and protection of those engaged in the practice of medicine, and to render the profession most useful to the public and of service to humanity.”
John Hepp, a history professor at Wilkes University, said professional societies were typically found in bigger cities. He said Wilkes-Barre’s own Medical Society “made sense” because of the city growth at that time and it being the home of more medical professionals.
Hepp said it did not take much to become a doctor in the late 1800s as it does these days. Then, people went to college, studied in the department of medicine and would become new doctors after studying under an established doctor. The Medical Society, Hepp said, helped to distinguish doctors from those less qualified.
“These organizations are basically private clubs for the elite that practice those professions,” he said.
The Medical Society served a larger purpose than just giving professionals a place to meet and greet.
Dr. L.H. Taylor proposed forming a reference library for the society in 1897. It would take only two years for that library to include 2,200 volumes and 30 current journals.
“The way to get information was to have all of the available journals and everything there,” Hepp said. “You could do real cutting-edge research without leaving the county.”
Miller said the library was important given how hard information was to get at the time. Libraries in the area were still building their collections, and the ease of access to information we enjoy today simply was not there.
Having access to information, especially at a time when doctors didn’t know what they do today, was critical for treating patients.
“Particularly in those days, you can imagine what it meant trying to get medical information, any sort of technical information,” Miller said. “Picture a doctor at the turn of the 20th century … if he needed information on a new disease or a condition he wasn’t familiar with, he needed to have a library.”
The Medical Society had fitting housing given its historic tenure as an organization.
It was initially to be found at the Luzerne County Courthouse in the late 1800s. Then-president Dr. Ernest U. Buckman proposed getting a more permanent home for the organization in February 1913. In June of that year, a lot was purchased at the rear of 132 S. Franklin St. for $7,000.
Construction of the Medical Society’s current home started in 1914. Described as “a Pantheon” in a pamphlet celebrating the city’s bicentennial, the building has a distinguished, circular construction resembling the classic structure.
“That’s one of the hidden treasures (of downtown),” Hepp said. “It’s off the street; no one knows it’s there.”
Architect Brice Hayden Long designed the building loosely based on the Roman Pantheon. The first floor contained a massive medical library, which still holds some historical texts.
The second floor features an auditorium with a massive dome overhead. The dome used to be open, but it had to be covered due to drafts. Covering the dome did little to deter the booming effect the room still has when one speaks inside.
The first meeting in the building was held March 3, 1915. A total of 68 members and two visitors were present.
Historic furniture and literature can still be found throughout the building. Some of that furniture caught the attention of a set designer for an upcoming television show.
The Art League contracted ChrisComm Estate Solutions to facilitate the sale of several chairs and a rare Wooten rotary desk. The furniture will be featured on “The Knick,” a medical drama set in the 1900s that takes place in New York City’s Knickerbocker Hospital.
Starring Clive Owen and produced and directed by Steve Soderbergh, the show will premiere on Cinemax sometime in the summer.
The Medical Society would receive some additions leading into World War II. The Associated Physicians of Hazleton was accepted as a branch society in 1923, and a Women’s Auxiliary of the Luzerne County Medical Society was formed in 1932.
The women’s auxiliary was described as “instrumental” in raising funds to maintain the Medical Society’s new home.
The end of World War II, however, resulted in a decline in membership and revenue for the organization. The women’s auxiliary was dissolved in the 1980s, further complicating the organization’s financial situation.
A sale of the building had to happen in order to save the society.
The Wyoming Valley Art League purchased the round, two-story brick building off South Franklin Street for $200,000 about three years ago. The building then became the art league’s first permanent home.