Lighting up our medical history

18 May 2017
Erna Battenhaussen with the the Melrose heart-lung machine

Arts student Erna Battenhaussen is shining a fresh light on some of New Zealand’s most important medical artefacts.

Last summer Erna, who has a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and Art History, worked at Auckland's Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT) as part of a Summer Research Scholarship.

Under the direction of Head of History, Professor Linda Bryder, she was tasked with researching objects from MOTAT's collection that could form the beginnings of an online Auckland Medical Museum.

"I chose nine medical items in the collection that were historically important and visually interesting," says Erna.

Among the most significant was the Melrose heart-lung machine, brought to New Zealand by Sir Douglas Robb and Sir Brian Barrett-Boyes, and used in ground-breaking open heart surgery in 1958.

The surgery, which repaired a hole in the heart of an eleven-year old girl, Helen Arnold, was the first of its kind in New Zealand and made headlines around the world.

"The Melrose heart-lung machine contributes to the understanding of the history of cardiovascular medicine internationally," says Erna. "Open heart surgery continues to be used in modern medicine and this machine is a valuable learning tool for understanding the history of its treatment."

She also worked on an iron lung built at Auckland Hospital around 1935 using an electric motor and vacuum pumps from a milking machine. Iron lungs were a common treatment for polio, which affected nearly 10,000 individuals in New Zealand between 1915 and 1961.  

"Understanding what polio patients went through pre-immunisation puts into perspective the importance of modern developments in medicine and public health," says Erna.

She has tried to place each object in a wider historical context. For example, she studied four electro-cardiographs that range over a 50-year period from a 1920s German model that had a hand crank to a Japanese model built in the 1990s.

A Dutch-manufactured Maxinec incubator included in Erna's research has proven links to the history at St Vincent's Home of Compassion in Herne Bay which was run by the Sisters of Compassion, whose founder was Mother Mary Joseph (Suzanne) Aubert.

"Now that its provenance has been more clearly defined it is evident that this machine could have major historic and social significance to Auckland, and New Zealand as a whole," says Erna. “We are interested to find out more about how this was used and possibly modified during its time at St Vincent's."

Erna's research has also unearthed stories of Kiwi ingenuity such as the Greenlane Hospital technicians who deftly altered the Melrose heart-lung machine's oxygenator which was rotating at too high a speed when it first arrived.

Dr Bridget Mosley, Registrar of MOTAT’s Collection Inventory, says that "In-depth research is something we always want to do more of but it can be a luxury for us in our day-to-day work. Supporting learning and development is important to MOTAT and Erna's research will add to our understanding of the significance of the collection and how we interpret it for visitors, while at the same time giving a young museum professional first-hand work experience."

Erna is now employed two days a week at MOTAT while continuing to study for a Master of Heritage Conservation specialising in Museums and Cultural Heritage.

She is doing ongoing research into medical items that will contribute to MOTAT's wider understanding of its whole health sciences collection.

"I am passionate about this sort of thing," Erna says. "I really believe in looking to the past to shape the future."

Find out more about Summer Research Scholarships