The Donald K. Piper Memorial Medical Collection

St. Joseph Medical Center today is located at the confluence of I-435 and State Line Rd. It opened in January, 1977, having moved from its previous home at Linwood and Prospect (1917-1977, demolished in 1982).

In 2015, the Kansas City Museum acquired the collection of the Donald K. Piper Memorial Medical Museum, a significant collection of medical instruments and historical archives from St. Joseph Hospital — now St. Joseph Medical Center. St. Joseph Medical Center is the oldest private hospital in Kansas City, Missouri.

The collection is part medical history and part corporate history and includes everything from doctor’s bags to delicate baby respirators. It has unusual items as well as numerous examples of mundane items offering a fascinating look at the technological advancement in treatments and procedures spanning 100 years. The collection also tells the story of St. Joseph Hospital, with annual reports detailing the number of patients, their ailments and the doctors who treated them. It’s much more of a corporate history of the hospital itself up to the present day. The many photos, reports, newsletters and medical publications tell the story of the hospital and the people who spent their lives making Kansas City a healthier place to live.

St. Joseph Hospital was established in 1874 by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, an order of Roman Catholic women with roots in 17th-century France. The first building opened on Quality Hill at 7th and Pennsylvania. A new, more modern hospital was built in 1917 on Linwood Boulevard. After 60 years, in 1977, the hospital moved to its current location at State Line and I-435. This move was precipitated by not only a need for an updated facility, but also the changing composition from all-white to all-Black neighborhoods on the east side of Kansas City.

Portrait of Dr. Donald K. Piper (1974) who, as head of doctors at St. Joseph Hospital, created a committee to look into creating what would become museum exhibits and a substantial collection of medical equipment and memorabilia.

The collection of the Donald K. Piper Memorial Medical Museum is named for the orthopedic surgeon who started it, Dr. Donald K. Piper; he spent much of his career at St. Joseph’s as well as had the idea for a medical museum. Dr. Piper (1915-1993) did his residency at St. Joseph Hospital in between stints in the U.S. Navy during WWII and the Korean conflict. He became president of the medical staff in 1962, which allowed him the opportunity to move his ideas of a museum of medical equipment forward.

Shortly after becoming president of the medical staff, Dr. Piper was presented with a Civil War doctor’s saddlebag. This further solidified his goal of preserving items that would show a unique side of hospital, and general medical, history. He formed a committee, and during Hospital Week of 1971, “The Museum Kick-off” officially recognized the museum collection. The first public display was in 1972, and the first museum exhibit, “Turn of the Century Doctor’s Office,” was dedicated in April 1983 at St. Joseph Hospital’s second facility at Linwood and Prospect. When the hospital moved to new quarters at State Line and I-435, it took time to carve out a space for the medical collection and main exhibit. With new space, a second dedication occurred in 1998 and commemorated The Donald K. Piper Memorial Medical Collection.

Porcelain invalid or infant feeder, one of the earliest pieces that Dr. Piper collected for the medical museum. These would have been used in the home or the hospital. The more decorative pieces were more likely used in the home.

While Dr. Piper did much of the initial collecting, over the years other doctors at St. Joseph’s, and their family members, contributed to the museum as well. Today, the collection is more than 15,000 objects including instruments, archives and ephemera related to St. Joseph Hospital in particular, and Kansas City medical history overall. When Prime Healthcare donated the well-documented and organized collection to the Kansas City Museum in 2015, the donation included state-of-the-art storage cabinetry to house the collection, making it a relatively simple transition from St. Joseph Medical Center to Kansas City Museum.

The Greater Kansas City Museum Collection’s Jean and Tom McDonnell Gallery on the second floor of Corinthian Hall shows a small survey of a rich, well-curated collection of medical history. In the next year, the public will be able to access more collection objects digitally. At this time, the Kansas City Museum must thank former St. Joseph Medical Center curator Joan Hilger-Mullen for her care of the collection. If you go to St. Joseph Medical Center today, you can still see the Old-Fashioned Doctor’s Office and a small exhibit on nursing on the lower level of the building.

To learn more about the Kansas City Museum, visit kansascitymuseum.org.

–Denise Morrison

CategoriesArts Consortium

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