At the Cyrus museum

Over his 39-year career, Dr Cecil Cyrus has earned himself the gratitude of hundreds of patients, and the title “isolated Surgeon of St Vincent”

Dr Cecil Cyrus, “the Isolated Surgeon of St Vincent”. Photograph by Erica McIntoshThe Cyrus Museum houses 40 years’ worth of memorabilia. Photograph by Erica McIntoshThe museum, seen from the main road. Photograph by Erica McIntosh

On leaving the edge of west-central Kingstown, you begin to climb the Montrose Hill, on the road that leads to St Vincent’s leeward coast. About halfway up this hill stands one of the most enigmatic buildings in the Caribbean. The name on the sign in front proclaims “The Dr Cecil Cyrus Museum”.

In outward appearance, the museum — which opened on 23 May, 2002 — is simply a large concrete building with one entrance on the main road. The five rooms inside house the relics of one man’s life-work. The contents range from a wooden 12-inch ruler that the owner took to each public examination he sat as a young student, to the cold metal operating table (with spotless white cotton sheet and neat hospital corners) on which he performed thousands of surgical operations before his retirement in 2001. Each room is an Aladdin’s cave, as much for medical practitioners as for lay persons.

The museum’s owner, curator, and guide is retired general surgeon Arthur Cecil Cyrus. On the afternoon I visited, he abandoned his gardening to show me around. Born in 1927, Cyrus is a short man, now grey and balding, with a spare, athletic frame. In the course of his 39-year career he became a legend among medical practitioners in the Caribbean and internationally. In the world of medicine he is known as “the Isolated Surgeon of St Vincent”. He coined the phrase himself to describe his practice, using it in over 40 medical papers presented to his peers.

But Cyrus is known for his inventiveness in response to medical isolation, rather than for his seclusion or lack of communication. By 1989, he had compiled 3,000 photographs of a wide variety of medical conditions, and written the text and paid for the publication of what has become an acclaimed textbook of pathology. A Clinical and Pathological Atlas: The Records of a Surgeon in St Vincent, the West Indies illustrates and discusses the conditions he attended during his decades of practice in the island. His reviewers in the medical press, specialists not usually given to eulogy, invariably begin by acknowledging his outstanding achievements. In the Bulletin of the Royal College of Pathologists, for example, the reviewer stated, simply, “this is a remarkable book by a truly remarkable man”. In 2005, Cyrus was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Science by the University of the West Indies in Barbados. His citation at this gathering began: “It is not often that mere mortals meet men who are legends in their own lifetime.”

Cyrus’s life-collection of body parts, surgical implements, and personal memorabilia tells a story of a Caribbean from which we can too easily avert our eyes. On one wall of his former operating theatre hang examples of X-rays. Some are malformations, such as a child’s two hips out of place since birth; another demonstrates thighbone fractures, on the mending of which Cyrus gives a quick lecture, describing the three ways of treating traction. Other images testify to what he calls “our hot-bloodedness as an island people”. Here an X-ray of part of a brain illustrates what he calls “the limits of brotherly love”. The result of a man playing his radio too loudly was a depressed fracture of his skull, caused when his irate brother hurled a convenient stone at his head. This “hot-bloodedness”, Cyrus says calmly, accounted for dozens of fractures of this type which he has treated.

Nestling cosily together in their own glass case are a cutlass, a grindstone, and a file, another collective testament to Caribbean hot-bloodedness. The trio also hint at the history of the banana industry. The export of bananas of an acceptable standard demands one clean cut for each bunch. This in turn requires a sharp cutlass. The historical shift from grindstone to file resulted in sharper cutlasses and more bananas shipped. The development also led to more work for the surgeon: sewing limbs back on, mending deep wounds.

Along one side wall of the operating theatre is an array of scissors, clamps, and other grappling equipment, much of which was donated by thoughtful medical practitioners from abroad. Cyrus chuckles as he points them out to me, giving them their precise names, “all out of date”, he says, with a knowing twinkle in his eye. On another wall are enlarged pictures, in colour, often the results of late presentations of various conditions by his patients. They include tumours of various kinds, enlarged kidney stones, encephalitis, the painful result of some home remedy, gravel extracted from a person’s knee. I swallow hard, and ask about public attitudes to tissue donation.

Patients were always assured of anonymity in their photographs and specimens, he says. “They were not only willing and pleased, but were proud to have their lesions photographed. They had never had this type of interest shown in them and their diseases, and so never once did I have a refusal.”

This display of advanced symptoms, he says ruefully, is not intended to be morbid or gruesome. “Now that the museum is accessible to everyone, many former patients come to view and some even ask, with obvious pride, to be shown their specimens, delighted to be part of this type of Vincentian history.” Nevertheless, he has put up a large sign near the entrance: “These photographs and other specimens are exhibited with the kind permission of our wonderful patients.” In reality, many of the conditions on display are lessons about the neglect of early warning systems, carelessness, or stoicism; the latter, he recognises, especially by mothers. He claims: “Perhaps the richest reward of my practice of medicine was that I learned reverence for motherhood, or the potential of motherhood, womanhood.”

Then there are rows of bottles of all dimensions containing pickled internal organs and external body parts, illustrating the range of human conditions that Cyrus has analysed, removed, and finally catalogued. Storage, he explains, was a big problem, until he replaced formalin with diluted strong local rum, less severe on the lungs. In one corner are his favourite implements — those with which he has had to improvise. They include screwdrivers of various sizes, with metal instead of wooden handles (for easier sterilisation), electric drills, and homemade lead weights for traction (in his day, the officially available sandbags leaked). His favourite inventions are three hollow metal objects, each roughly the size of a wine cork, with a serrated outer edge. They are home made “trephines” for burr holes, used for freeing blood trapped in the brain, constructed by a local metalwork teacher. Cyrus estimates he has used some 36 locally made improvised instruments, which have saved or restored countless lives. But he is clear that he is not a miracle worker. “We are a long-suffering people,” he says without irony. “Here we survive often against all odds.”

In another room the focus of the museum suddenly shifts from the professional to the personal. The curator here becomes the hoarder of all sorts of things: a sewing machine that belonged to his father, who was a tailor and self-educated man; an old yard broom; photographs of St Vincent’s Soufrière volcano erupting in 1979; a 1775 map of the island (“places had different names then, of course”); his boyhood coconut cricket bat and homemade cricket balls; a coal pot; a goose iron to press clothes; letters from late friends; handkerchiefs given to him as going-away presents; a cake of soap from Buckingham Palace; and the trusty wooden ruler.

During his 39 years of practice in St Vincent, Cyrus was elected a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons (in 1980), and in 1990 he was awarded the Master of Surgery degree for his Atlas. In 1983, he was honoured with an OBE, and in 2003 with the CMG — Cross of St Michael and St George — for services to medicine.

As we sat on a bench near the entrance to the museum, Cyrus told me how he came to choose medicine. At the age of seven in Layou, the rural village in west St Vincent where he lived as a young boy, he witnessed “the unfair practice of the district doctor, who arrived at 11 a.m., tended those who could pay his shilling fee, and cleared off promptly at noon, leaving the medically and financially needy to the nurse”. In 1950, he won a place to study at Queen’s University Medical School in Belfast, and graduated as a doctor in 1957. During these years he lived a happy, almost monastic existence in Edgehill College, a Methodist seminary, where he could lie on his bed and touch either wall of his room by extending his arms. He went on to study pediatrics and obstetrics, and, some years later, ophthalmology, to prepare for what he has called his “protean” role in St Vincent.

As if these activities were not enough for one person, he introduced the sport of squash to St Vincent in 1966, and built the first squash court in the island under his clinic, another in 1978, and a squash complex in 1983.

As Cyrus prepares to return to his gardening, he pauses for one last recollection. “My teachers were surprised at my choice of anonymity in St Vincent, instead of the glitter of academic life elsewhere. But one of the ruling philosophies of my life is, ‘life is beautiful. To preserve it is beautiful’.” And he wanders off towards his vegetables.