On display at the Western Illinois Museum as the February Artifact of the Month is a vintage medical instrument called a metabulator.  Used to measure basal metabolic rate, the metabulator on view at the museum was once used by local physician, Dr. J. Henry Hermetet (1902-1973), of Macomb.

Dr. Hermetet was the son of a Macomb doctor, Dr. John W. Hermetet, and father and son played a role in the history of medicine in Macomb.  Both were surgeon-in-chief at Phelps Hospital, the first hospital in Macomb, and there is a historical marker noting their involvement.  Located at 218 East Carroll Street, the Phelps Hospital was closed in 1966 and torn down in 1974.  Where the Marietta Phelps Hospital stood there now is a historical marker noting:

Site of Marietta Phelps Hospital built by Marietta Phelps and Dr. S.C. Stremmel in 1900, which served the Macomb community for 66 years.  In memory of these two and Dr. John W. Hermetet, surgeon-in-chief 1918-1935 and Dr. J. Henry Hermetet, surgeon-in-chief 1935-1966, and the many doctors, nurses and employees who staff the facility, this marker is dedicated June 25, 1976.”

Not only was Dr. J. Henry Hermetet, the surgeon-in-chief at the Phelps Hospital, but he also had a private practice office on the East side of the Macomb Courthouse Square.

James Henry Hermetet was also known as J. Henry, and sometimes just Henry.  In his high school yearbook, The Sequel, he is listed as Henry Hermetet.  Hermetet graduated from the Academy (high school) at the Western Illinois State Normal School (as WIU was once called) in 1920.  He passed away in 1973 in Macomb and is buried in Oakwood Cemetery.

Gus and Rosalee Schnarr, both long-time residents of Lewistown, donated the metabulator to the museum in 1987.  Gus was born 1925 in rural Marietta and passed away in 2011 in Lewistown at the age of 86. He worked for Caterpillar at the East Peoria Plant for 32 years, and had served in the U.S. Army during World War II and was stationed at Camp Ellis.   His obituary noted that Gus enjoyed his coffee hour, flea markets and auctions.  Rosalee was born in 1925 in rural Littleton and passed away in 2012 at the age of 86.  During World War II, Rosalee was also at Camp Ellis where she worked in the cafeteria and in the infirmary.  Her obituary noted that Rosalee was foremost a homemaker, deeply involved with all of her children’s activities, and as Gus enjoyed his retirement, she enjoyed accompanying him to flea markets.  Perhaps Gus and Rosalee discovered the metabulator at a flea market or auction, bought it and kept it until deciding to donate it to the museum.

The four-legged wood-cased metabulator stands about 32 inches high, on wheeled casters and somewhat resembles a serving cart with an array of gauges and dials on the top of the cart.  On the cart is a recording compartment with a paper roll, barometer and thermometer dials, a carbon dioxide absorption chamber and a chamber for the placement of an oxygen tank. A metal plaque on the metabulator states it was made for J. Henry Hermetet, M.D. by the Sanborn Company of Cambridge Mass.

The metabulator was one of many different medical and scientific instruments and devices the Sanborn Company produced until 1961 when Hewlett Packard purchased the company.  Dr. Hermetet used the metabulator on patients to measure basal metabolic rate, also referred to as BMR, which is the amount of calories your body burns at rest for basic functioning.

The metabulator instruction booklet included with the device explains how the metabulator measured basal metabolic rate.

“The patient breathes into a closed circuit in which the air is kept circulating constantly by means of a motor blower.  At the beginning of a test the operator fills the bellows by adding pure oxygen, so that the circulating “air” that the patient breathes is an atmosphere rich in oxygen.  The carbon dioxide that he produces is extracted from the stream of exhaled air as it passes through the Metabolime chamber, Mateabolime being a CO2 absorbent.  As the test proceeds the patient gradually uses up the oxygen in the system and the bellows slowly shrinks.  From the amount of this shrinkage during a given time the operator can determine the volume of oxygen per minute that the patient is consuming, and from this figure the basal metabolic rate can be calculated.”

Doctors today still measure metabolic rate, but they have come a long way from the metabulator.  Today the device used to measure metabolic rate is called a metabolic cart.  A metabolic cart is an electronic medical tool and includes a computer system, monitor, and breathing tubes, all typically mounted together on mobile push cart, hence the name, so that it can easily be moved from one examining room to another. The metabolic cart has many different uses within the medical community. This tool is often used in an intensive care unit or emergency room in order to learn more about the immediate condition of a patient who may not be able to respond to simple questions. In hospitals, use of the metabolic cart can prevent over-feeding and under-feeding by accurately measuring energy requirements. The metabolic cart is also frequently used in sports medicine to measure the condition of athletes.

As an artifact with a direct connection to the history of medicine of Macomb, and also as an item illustrating the historical development of an important medical device still used today, this metabulator serves as a reminder how the museum preserves items from the past to give us all a perspective on the present.

From an essay by Heather Munro.