Back to the Future

Discover which old house is educating students about medicine.

December 2009 marked the 300th anniversary of the Thompson House in Setauket. American patriot and self-educated physician Dr. Samuel Thompson called the dwelling home during the 1700s. In honor of what this historic site represents, The Ward Melville Heritage Organization (WMHO), in cooperation with Stony Brook University Medical Center, launched an unprecedented educational program Medicine: Past, Present and Future to enable students and adults to learn about the development of three centuries of medicine. The program aims to generate students’ interest in the fields of science, research and medicine.

Founded in 1939, WMHO is a nonprofit corporation that fosters community enrichment through cultural and educational experiences. The organization is committed to enhancing and interpreting historic and environmentally sensitive properties. Stony Brook University Medical students teach the Medicine: Past, Present and Future program in a first-person viewpoint to groups participating in the program’s hands-on activities.

“This program is a fun way to give back to the Long Island community, while at the same time learn about the history of medicine and how we as a society have evolved to practice the way we do today,” says Pyranka Relan, second-year medical student and one of approximately ten Stony Brook University medical students who serve as program educators.

Mainly for those in grades 4-7, the program is offered by appointment and can be adapted for adults. Students step back into the 18th century and become “patients” of Dr. Thompson’s apprentice. They see and learn about medical instruments used in the 1700s and illnesses such as yellow fever and consumption. As they move through the centuries and their corresponding rooms in the house, students explore a room that used to quarantine people suffering from yellow fever. Also on the tour is Dr. Thompson’s kitchen, where kids use a mortar and pestle to grind fresh herbs into medicinal tablets. Participants additionally view the 21st- century room and explore how advancements in technology, medicine and science affect the way today’s patients are treated. Students even perform an operation on a broken leg via SMART Board technology and compare the experience to setting a broken leg with a splint earlier in the 18th-century room. They discuss topics such as the swine flu and tuberculosis and the differences and similarities in today’s healthcare versus that of the 1700s.

In order to offer this new program, WMHO researched Dr. Thompson’s life. Many historic documents were discovered, including his cash receipt book (c. 1785-1787) and journal (c. 1800). During the course of study, it was learned that Dr. Thompson treated members of George Washington’s Setauket Spy Ring.

At the opening celebration for the Thompson House program, president of Stony Brook University Dr. Samuel L. Stanley noted, “The collaboration between The Ward Melville Heritage Organization and Stony Brook University on this initiative is a natural one that combines a rich local history story with the education of science and medicine.”

Named for a philanthropist who greatly contributed to the development of the Stony Brook community, WMHO offers many programs and exhibits, particularly at its 8,800-square-foot educational and cultural center. In addition to the Medicine: Past, Present and Future program, the organization leads an abundance of engaging activities and events involving performing arts, music, inter-generational programs and more. The center provides adult, youth and distance-learning programs.

Along with an educational and cultural center, WMHO houses historical sites and a wetland’s preserve, which is home to the Marine Conservation Center. Such hubs allow students to seemingly travel back in time to the days of George Washington, experience early Native American life, learn about energy alternatives at a mill, and delve into the worlds of marine environments and coastal ecology.