Volunteers restore MD office in northeast Alabama

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JACKSONVILLE, Ala. (AP) — While volunteers were busy hammering new shingles into place on a recent morning, below their feet, the back room of the Dr. Francis Museum seemed frozen. Dust danced in light streaming in from unshuttered windows; the colored glass of antique medicine bottles filled with a glow, and rows of metal instruments gave off a dull shine.

Dozens of volunteers have come out in force to spruce up the once-functional museum at the corner of Clinton Street and Gayle Avenue Southwest. Work has moved quickly, and volunteers hope to return the building's shine, turning the historic two-room doctor's office into a community resource.

After two weeks of work on the project, the volunteers were halfway to their fundraising goal of $12,000 and had managed to replace the roof, clear brush and debris from the property, and begin scraping crumbling paint on the building.

"This property is going to be a real looker by the time we're done with it," said Gail DaParma, a project organizer.

While the front room of the museum is mostly empty save ladders and scaffolding, the former examination room in back is crammed with dusty display cases full of medical artifacts, an antique heater, and various remnants of the recent volunteer work, including an ice chest filled with bottled water. The building, despite its deterioration, has been in worse shape than when volunteers undertook the project recently.

When Rebecca Duke, who wrote her 2009 history master's thesis on the museum, first entered the building to begin work in the fall of 2008, she believed it had been untouched for nearly two decades. She found thick layers of dust and cobwebs, a few rodent carcasses, and mold everywhere. "We had to scrub down every single surface of the walls," she said.

Once it was clean, she began an inventory of the artifacts and a plan for the museum's restoration. She said the central theme of the museum and its artifacts was an approximately 100-year history of Jacksonville and the medical profession, including original owner and practitioner Dr. James Carrington Francis and his family.

Stefanie Rookis, curator of the Alabama Museum of the Health Sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has not been to the Dr. Francis Museum, but she evaluated photographs of the museum's artifacts taken last week.

Journals like the one Francis kept with medicinal recipes and notes on procedures are not uncommon, Rookis said. In fact, most doctors of the time handled all aspects of the business, functioning as apothecaries and bookkeepers in addition to physicians who handled every ailment their patients presented. Rookis said account ledgers kept by doctors of the period can show patients with ongoing accounts or payment of chickens for the doctor's services.

Items such as saddle bags, which Rookis said were specifically created to hold medicines in fitted rows, show how mobile a general doctor's practice used to be.

"If they had to make a quick hospital visit on horseback, that's what they would use," she said.

What Rookis called a "typical amputation set" stands out for its frequent use during Francis' time.

Items such as surgical knives, a bone saw, a tourniquet, hooks to hold back veins, probes for removing bullets, scoops for debris and a trephine — a circular saw used primarily to relieve pressure in the skull — were employed much more frequently for a procedure that is a last resort today.

"During the Civil War, records are that there were a lot more amputations. That was a quick fix . to stop gangrene or threat of death."

When Duke undertook her initial inventory of the artifacts in the museum, she was struck by how familiar many of the implements looked.

"The things they used back in the 19th century look a whole lot like what we still use today," she said, particularly noting childbearing tools. Rookis added that forceps and mortar-and-pestle sets are very similar to their modern counterparts.

But items such as the ether mask — which held a soaked rag to a patient's nose and mouth — reminds viewers how much more sophisticated medicine has become, Rookis noted.

"From a local history standpoint and then the history of medicine, it is absolutely important," she said of the restoration project. "It's the local heritage and to remind folks how far we've come in medicine."

Francis first moved to Jacksonville from his native Tennessee in 1837 and served residents of the town and surrounding areas for more than 50 years until he died in 1888, according to a museum pamphlet found in the doctor's former examination room. He studied medicine in two states and practiced medicine in Marion County, Tenn., before making his way to Jacksonville.

Francis did not serve in the Civil War because he was already in his 50s when it began in 1861, according to Duke. He was, however, active in local politics as a town councilman and supported Democratic candidates for state elections. Duke said Francis used his connection with the town's newspaper, The Jacksonville Republican, to draw support on the home front during the Civil War.

According to a historical marker erected at the site by the General John H. Forney Historical Society, the former general practitioner's office, which was built on the courthouse square about 1850, is the only remaining structure of its kind in Northeast Alabama.

The museum pamphlet describes the building's features, including a chimney built of locally-fired brick, the (mostly) original wooden floor, the classical-temple façade and Doric columns, and windows surrounding the front door, whose colored glass was likely imported from Belgium.

The two-room office, where Dr. Francis provided apothecary services in the front of the building and saw patients in the back, housed many other doctors through the years, including Francis' colleague Dr. C.J. Clark, a Confederate Army surgeon and director of the Alabama Hospital in Richmond. Other medical practices through the years included those of Francis' grandson, John M. Francis, Forney M. Lawrence and James Williams.

The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in November 1970 and deeded to the Alabama Historical Commission by the First National Bank of Jacksonville that December.

The next big project is scraping and painting the exterior of the building, a process that will take a lot longer because the building has been neglected, said Jerrod Brown, president of the Jacksonville Historical Society and a project organizer. "Once it's painted we can start with other things like electrical, heat and air, and landscaping."

Brown said the group's goal is to wrap up the project by the first week of March. After the curtains are hung and the floors shine, the volunteers may find new places to put their efforts to work.

"Once we get this done, we're hoping to take on more projects around town," DaParma said. "If citizens get behind it, as the citizenry, we can produce a lot of real positive results."

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Information from: The Anniston Star, http://www.annistonstar.com/

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