In Memoriam: Percy Skuy

Percy Skuy

The Dittrick Medical History Center is sad to announce that donor and longtime friend of the museum, Percy Skuy has passed away. Our retired chief curator, Jim Edmonson, worked with Mr. Skuy to bring the Skuy History of Contraception collection to the Dittrick, creating a decades-long partnership with the museum. Mr. Skuy also generously created a history of contraception lecture series and actively engaged with the museum and University to support new research and scholarship based on the collection. Dr. Edmonson has graciously shared the following essay, which chronicles how Mr. Skuy came to have such an impact on the Dittrick Museum. 

Percy Skuy: In Memoriam

James M. Edmonson, Ph.D.
Chief Curator (retired), Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum, College of Arts and Sciences, Case Western Reserve University

Percy Skuy and James Edmonson, Chief Curator, Dittrick Medical History Center, c.2006

Percy Skuy came into my life by way of his historic contraceptive collection and in the process, he made a profound impact on my life, career, and the Dittrick Museum where I worked. Around 2002 Percy resolved to find a lasting home for the collection he developed. Parting with the collection must have been bittersweet. It was clear that he delighted in the search for artifacts and he would miss that. But Percy also fervently believed that the collection embodied insights into creativity and resourcefulness in resolving social issues surrounding reproductive health. He stressed that while these matters preoccupied health care professionals, they also had a universal impact, touching lives broadly across society. Seeing it from Percy’s perspective, I was hooked. Moreover, he brimmed with infectious enthusiasm and brought an inquisitiveness to all that he encountered, which I found inspirational.

Beyond professional conversation, we connected in a personal way. When Percy first came to Cleveland (to size up the Dittrick as a possible home for his collection) I picked him up at the airport. We chatted, getting better acquainted on the drive back to the Dittrick. I detected the hint of an accent and inquired if he might be from South Africa. Somewhat quizzically, he asked how I might think that. I replied that I played squash and had encountered several players from South Africa on the squash court. Well, that opened the door to a shared lifelong passion for racquet sports, for him tennis, for me squash. Funny how small things can open doors to better acquaintance and friendship.

Jennifer Nieves, Archivist & Registrar, Dittrick Medical History Center and Percy Skuy, 2005

Given Percy’s attachment to the collection, I knew that it would take more than charm to convince him we could provide it with a proper home. To that end, I presented Percy with an informative document entitled A Collection as Catalyst: Prospectus for the Percy Skuy Collection of Contraceptive Devices at the Dittrick Medical History Center. This set forth what assets we had to offer and how the collection might become a vibrant educational resource. We assembled a group of interested faculty who articulated how they might integrate the collection into their research and teaching at Case Western Reserve University. We also tapped the leading historian of contraception in North America who had used the collection in Toronto, as well as prominent historically-minded practitioners in the OB/GYN field, both local and international. Percy admitted that he was impressed that we had composed a “business plan” and had demonstrated considerable thoughtfulness in addressing the multiple ways in which the collection be served.

Percy Skuy at the opening of Virtue, Vice, and Contraband: A History of Contraception in America, 2005

Long story short: although Percy made visits to other museums offering prospective venues, he settled upon the Dittrick as the new home for his collection. This only proved to be the commencement of collaboration with Percy and not the end of a process. Over the years, we discussed possible speakers, brain-stormed ways to exhibit the collection, explored further collection development through his contacts in the medical and pharmaceutical world. It became a symbiotic relationship; Percy addressed ongoing stewardship and support, while I derived inspiration by his example and advanced various ways to showcase the collection. A landmark result of this collaboration came with the 2009 opening of the Percy Skuy Gallery featuring the interpretive exhibition, “Virtue, Vice, and Contraband: A History of Contraception in America.”

While I retired as Chief Curator in September 2018, the Dittrick continues to benefit from being home to Percy’s collection and his generous largesse. For myself, perhaps the greatest thing Percy imparted to me was his wonderful sense of openness to new ways of seeing, interpreting, and sharing his collection. But perhaps, on a personal level, it was Percy’s inquisitiveness, open-mindedness, and his exuberant enjoyment of life, his joie de vivre, that I found so profoundly moving. And that will last with me for as long as I live.

Special thanks to Dr. Edmonson and the Skuy Family for allowing us to share this remembrance of Percy Skuy. Click here for more information on the Skuy History of Contraception. Stay tuned regarding the announcement of our 2022 Skuy Lecture speaker and upcoming events honoring Mr. Skuy’s contributions to the Dittrick Medical History Center.