Top Fish Seafood, Visco Wholesale and Seafood Connection. The industrial park on the edge of the fishing village of Urk meets all our expectations. On the Tuesday morning of our visit, trucks are driving to and fro, transporting deep-frozen fish. Students taking the Bachelor’s degree in Clinical Technology are walking between the enormous warehouses, confusion plain on their faces. Their facial expressions betray their thoughts. Surely this is not the place where we are to be immersed in the history of Dutch medicine for one day? However, a sheet of paper affixed to the front door of a warehouse on the waterfront informs them that, yes, this is indeed the right place.

Lost

You can’t blame them for feeling a tad confused. The five warehouses Professor Mart van Lieburg, 67, has put into use over the last few years to accommodate the Trefpunt Medische Geschiedenis Nederland (Dutch Medical History Meeting Point) are about the last place in the Netherlands where you’d expect to find this gigantic collection of medical heritage. “I looked everywhere, but in the end, this was the best place, in terms of costs and space. No, it’s not the most obvious place, but we needed the space straight away.”

You see, back in 2003, a large number of the books held by Erasmus MC’s medical library were about to be removed from the collection. To Van Lieburg, this was a sign that it was time to undertake action. “So I asked the university: how much are you spending on my workspace and my assistant? I traded them for the money I used to move my workspace to a different place. Along with my own collection of books, which was kept in different places all over the country, I had Erasmus MC’s collection transferred to Urk.”

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Mart van Lieburg in his ‘own’ 19th century library. Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

Horrible-looking devices

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Instrument from the pharmacy. Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

Sixteen years later, Van Lieburg and his colleagues have collected over a million euros’ worth of real estate, as well as several million euros’ worth of medical heritage, which comprises a lot more than just rows upon rows of books. There is a completely intact Rotterdam pharmacy dating from 1895. There are showcases full of horrible-looking devices that urologists working in the tropics used to use, and there is a cupboard that shows how chamber pots have changed over the years. Name one aspect of medical history and you’ll find it here. Just don’t make the mistake of calling the Meeting Point a museum. Not only will you offend Van Lieburg himself if you do so, but you will offend all the people volunteering at the place. “We don’t just preserve medical heritage here. We’re also a place where people can conduct research and teach classes. A place for medical professionals and students.”

Today, the students in question are nearly one hundred students taking the Bachelor’s degree in Clinical Technology. ‘D-day’ is what Van Lieburg calls the annually recurring day on which he receives the students taking the degree established jointly by the universities of Delft, Leiden and Rotterdam. While he opens the day by giving a lecture on the importance of ‘Urk’ (“Knowledge contained in PDFs constitutes just a small fraction of the knowledge collected in books”) to about half of the students, the other students are all over the warehouses, where dozens of volunteers – many of them retired doctors – are telling them about their particular fields of study, while seated between their own books and medical devices.

An entire pharmacy’s contents

“When I quit working, I wanted to keep honouring my profession,” says Wim Schoemans, a retired physiotherapist. He is giving the students an extensive introduction to fitness equipment of yore. “Everyone who is here, is here because he or she loves his or her profession. For people like us, what could be better than sharing our knowledge with a younger generation? The great thing is that those of us who are here are not self-interested, which means this is a very pleasant environment. And we actually learn from each other. I can have a conversation with a dentist every bit as easily as with my fellow practitioners.”

In a neighbouring warehouse, Peter Wittop Koning, 74, proudly presents a nineteenth-century pharmacy from Rotterdam. The IT specialist, who used to work in the medical industry, joined the Meeting Point when an ancient computer from a pharmacy was about to be thrown away. “I simply couldn’t bear the thought of that happening. So in the end, I took it here, and ended up staying myself as a volunteer. I work in the archives, and sometimes I’ll do odd jobs.”

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Students listen to physiotherapist Wim Schoemans (blue sweater). Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

Kibbeling

Van Lieburg is loving it. The medical historian (‘it was all I was capable of’) acquired the first warehouse, at 8 Foksdiep, in 2003. Seven years later, he bought 6 Foksdiep, as well. By now, Nos 2 to 10 (inclusive) are all being used by medical societies, with each medical specialty having its own nook. Van Lieburg hasn’t had to look for new objects for a long time. Every week, delivery vans full of new materials find their way to Noordoostpolder, the area in which Urk is located. “By now we have genuinely become the medical history centre in the Netherlands, which is a great thing. We have volunteers from all over the country, who form a very close-knit team, and we get new groups of people visiting us every week. One day we’ll receive seventy surgeons who are discussing the latest trends in their profession, and a few days later we’ll have a hundred students at the premises.”

He treats his visitors to kibbeling (deep-fried battered fish) during the lunch break (‘we always do that’), but not until he has had a semi-stern word with the students and volunteers. “Don’t just sit next to your fellow students, and don’t spend all day discussing the good old days with your colleagues. Make a point of talking to each other.” Generally speaking, such requests tend to be ignored, but here it is not. Instead of checking out Instagram and reminiscing about the old days, young and old are actually mingling here.

For instance, urologist and tropical disease doctor Erik Felderhof, 68, soon finds himself surrounded by students. He enthusiastically shows devices used over the years by his colleagues in the tropics. His colourful stories occasionally cause the students’ jaws to drop. “Isn’t this just wonderful?” he says once he has handed over his audience to one of his colleagues. “I get to demonstrate over a century’s worth of developments in my profession. It’s extremely valuable information, and it helps us preserve the knowledge.”

Completely and utterly fab

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The pharmacy. Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

The volunteers attending the session keep an eye on Van Lieburg, to make sure he himself gets to eat some lunch. This is how he manages to consume a few bites of fish, in between all the anecdotes he is telling. “You can teach students in which year cholera came into being, but that kind of knowledge is soon forgotten. Here they’ll find an entire century’s worth of knowledge, which tends to be a lot more impressive to them. Learning what happened in which year is not what this place is all about.” For this reason, he says, the first time he ever received such a large group of students was an ‘unforgettable’ experience. “Afterwards, a female student came up to me. ‘This morning I didn’t feel like coming here at all, but I really think it was completely and utterly fab,’ she said. That was such a gift. It made my entire day. I just love such moments.”

Those who see the professor in action will probably have a hard time imagining that this unique place will ever be able to survive without Van Lieburg, or he without it. He has a permanent smile on his face, he has a word for everyone, and he is constantly making sure all his guests are having a good time. But deep down, he is already envisaging a future for the Meeting Point in which he will play a significantly less active part.

The question to be answered is how easy that will be. “People are slowly beginning to discover this place, which is just great. In addition, we have become considerably more professional in the last few years. We embarked on a professionalisation process six years ago, and last year we embarked on Stage 2. I’m working very hard on assigning responsibility for the various components to different people. It’ll take me a few more years, but that will be the moment I will gradually start withdrawing. By the way, have you had any kibbeling yet?”