On the third floor of Case Western University’s Allen Memorial Medical Library in Cleveland, Ohio, sits one of the largest collections of contraceptives in the world. The most interesting aspect of the collection isn’t the dried beaver testicle or the animal-skin condom from the Civil War. It’s not the Doughboy Kit from WWI or the hundreds of intra-uterine devices. It’s the fact that a single man, Percy Skuy, amassed the lion’s share of this collection without paying a dime.
In his 20s, Skuy set out on motorcycle from his home in South Africa, bent on traveling around the world. He eventually ended up short on money in Toronto. Open to new avenues, he took a job in the 1960s as a detail man for Ortho-McNeil, a drug company with a significant stake in the contraceptives market. A rich storyteller with genuine concern for issues of family planning, Skuy shot through the ranks, helping lead the marketing efforts around the launch of the birth control pill before becoming president of the company.
Throughout his nearly four decades with the company, Skuy diligently collected items that people had used in hopes of avoiding unintended pregnancies. There’s remedies rooted in folklore (a single bone from a black cat) and items that show just how desperate our desires and circumstances can make us (a candy bar wrapper from Australia). For years Skuy had displayed bits and pieces of his collection in the company’s Toronto headquarters, but he had to find a new home for them when it came time for retirement. That’s when he turned to Case Western and linked with medical historian James Edmonson who has since shaped Skuy’s collection into a historical narrative of innovation and desperation, sex and politics, science and folklore.