Appetizers in The Urology Museum

By Gabe Oppenheim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 19, 2008

LINTHICUM HEIGHTS, Md. -- As a boy, I'd scratch mosquito bites red and raw, unable to resist the furious itch. My father -- though not a doctor-- devised a solution. With each bite, he'd sink the long, pointy nail of his thumb into the swollen flesh. "Oww!" I'd groan, hurting like crazy. And the itch was forgotten.

Until Thursday evening, the tactic, despite its efficacy (and my boyhood nostalgia), seemed completely amateurish. But then the American Urological Association opened its yearly exhibition at its headquarters here -- theme: Plagues and Pestilence -- and put on display the Lebenswecker, or "life awakener," a foot-long German instrument from the early 1900s that doctors used to deal with anything from asphyxia to syphilis.

It's a rather straightforward device, fashioned out of ebony. A doctor would place one end on a non-injured section of the patient and apply pressure to the opposite end, somewhat as one would a ballpoint pen. But instead of revealing a writing point, the Lebenswecker ejected 20 fine needles into the patient's body.

"You jam it into your skin, and you forget about the pain you have elsewhere," explains Rainer Engel, curator of the AUA's William P. Didusch Center for Urologic History. "It doesn't do anything."

Useless oddities are a major part of each year's Didusch opening, when about 100 urologists, nurses and history buffs arrive at an industrial park near BWI airport.

Amid cocktail tables swathed in deep-blue cloth, they munch pork tenderloin and chicken and pineapple skewers while viewing photos of an abdomen dotted with spots. From typhoid.

Faux stuffed rats -- pretend carriers of the plague -- welcome visitors, and the bar, decked in starfish and shells and twine, like a cheap tourist grill off Key West, serves chardonnay and beer.

It all makes for easy laughs, but the attendees, so very acclimated to disease as a commonplace, can't see that. "I deal with making people well -- I know what causes this," says Jean Fourcroy, 78, a captain in the Navy Reserve who refers to herself as "North America's fifth female urologist."

"Without disease, they'd have no business," adds her husband, Armin Behr, who steps away to chew a kabob. So the party goes on, with Engel meeting and greeting in a cream-colored suit, orange shirt and Southwestern bolo tie. He speaks with the dry, bemused wryness peculiar to doctors of the private parts.

Little blond heads race by as four of his grandchildren try to complete the Plagues and Pestilence Scavenger Hunt. They seem indifferent to the apparent grotesquerie. "The bug zoomed-in looks cool," observes 12-year-old Andreas Kremer, eyeing the microscopic image of a mosquito (part of the malaria wall). "I don't really get the creeps."

After two hours, Engel herds everyone into an auditorium for a slideshow. One image shows a woman dozing in a bed, tucked cozily under a heavy blanket as rats scurry over her face. It's an old hospital in New York, Engel tells the crowd, which clucks with knowing chagrin. "I've been around here a bit, so I'm kind of used to the juxtaposition," says Paul Stapp, 51, designer of the museum's permanent exhibition, licking the remains of his blueberry cheesecake.

The claim to fame of that collection, one staffer reveals, is a rare ring lined with inward-facing spikes. It was placed on boys' penises in the Victorian era as they got into bed, to prevent (or certainly punish) their getting excited overnight. An accompanying 1827 German text blames boy's desires on "French influences" and says "German nationalism was a likely antidote."

It's just another reminder in this niche museum that people have a difficult time venturing beyond their frames of reference. For these doctors, confronting disease is a daily occurrence, as constituent in their days as eating and drinking. Though perhaps this year's theme is especially unfunny, given its seriousness.

In the past, Engel has broached the history of medical quackery and sexual performance. This year he lays bare often abhorrent approaches to germs, including the Tuskegee Experiment in which the U.S. government failed to treat about 400 unwitting black men with syphilis in order to watch its spread and progression from the 1930s to the 1970s. "The overall impression of this one, I would say, is a little somber," Engel says.

Yet one imagines these doctors wouldn't laugh anyway, even if the material lent itself to their cause. They use words like "urethra" in casual conversation a great deal. So on to the bartender: Does this little gathering strike her as unusual?

The frame of reference constrains again.

"No," she says. "Actually, this is very popular these days -- these little cocktail receptions instead of big sit-down affairs."

And she returns to the pouring, her back to the ring of spikes.

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