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Dittrick Center curator considers how to chronicle a pandemic that isn’t yet history

Mark Oprea

sample hazard bag and tube

This saliva collection device used for COVID-19 testing became part of Dittrick Medical History Center’s collection in 2021.  Photo courtesy of The Dittrick Medical History Center

Just a month after the nation largely shut down in 2020 because of COVID-19, Amanda Mahoney spoke with fellow historians of medicine from the National Museum of American History and other institutions as they all began to contemplate which items indelibly tied to the pandemic should be preserved.

Many drifted to the obvious—plastic dividers, disinfectant sprays and “quarantini” recipes. But the Dittrick Medical History Center—where Mahoney, PhD, RN, is chief curator—has long focused on medical devices. Its collection of 175,000 artifacts is primarily centered on devices used in U.S. medical practice since the 1880s.

I’m making calls for specific healthcare items,” Mahoney said. “Due to our focus on the history of medical technology, items relevant to the cultural experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, while important, are outside the Dittrick’s scope.”

For example, Mahoney has her eye on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, machine. Designed to support critically ill patients, it oxygenates and pumps the body’s blood, effectively taking over the work of the lungs and heart.

During the pandemic’s first wave, ECMO machines were in short supply. Today, they remain in use and Mahoney wonders about the ethics of even asking a hospital to earmark a life-support machine for later donation.

“It’s challenging,” she said. “We will have to wait for the technologies that are still saving lives.”

Mahoney also sees herself gravitating to artifacts that illuminate more of COVID-19’s personal toll.

So, she plans to collect pulse oximeters, N95 masks and instant-read thermometers through the next few years as the Dittrick and other museums try to anticipate what will be relevant to future generations.

“My goal is to collect COVID-19 artifacts that will connect a medical device to an individual’s experience as a clinician, patient, or loved one, rather than to just the significance of the technology itself,” she said.

Pulse oximeter on white background. In measure blood oxygen saturation and pulse.

The type of pulse oximeter shown here measures blood oxygen levels and is still in active use. The museum has earmarked such a device for future preservation. Photo by Getty Images

Page last modified: March 17, 2023