World War II Veteran Honors His Uncle with Historical Medicine Exhibit at Yuma Territorial Prison

May 1, 2018

A World War II veteran recently visited Yuma to see how his uncle’s memory is being honored—through an exhibit at the Yuma Territorial Prison.  KAWC’s Maya Springhawk Robnett reports.

“We just looked at my old house here in Yuma,” 93-year-old Arthur Nye says, laughing, “Oh, it’s ready to cave in!”

Nye spent his childhood in Yuma.  He remembers playing in the Colorado River with his friends, and how they used to escape the summer heat, recalling how “nice and cool” it was in the dungeons. 

It was the 1930s.  And the dungeons were part of the Yuma Territorial Prison—a fortress of rock that housed some of the west’s most notorious criminals from 1876 until 1909, when it was closed.

The buildings were later used for a variety of functions, including operating as a temporary high school in the early 1910s. It became a state park and museum in 1961. But for many years in-between, the prison stood empty on the edge of the Colorado River.

“When we’d walk up the river, hiking up the river, we’d build rafts and come down,” Nye recalls, “and then we’d stop here and rest in the dungeon.”

Nye has another connection to the prison.  His uncle, Henri Apjohn, was one of the last doctors to treat the prison’s inmates before it closed. More than 100 years later, that was the connection that would bring Nye inside the prison walls again.

“When I opened this, you could’ve knocked me over with a feather,” says Tina Clark, the City of Yuma archeologist, “because these are a hundred years old.  All of this.”  She describes the day Nye showed up in town with six mysterious leather cases.  Inside was a treasure trove of early twentieth century medical equipment—and even medicine. 

“Everything can be found in here,” Clark says as she opens one of the cases, revealing dozens of metal instruments of varying size and shape.

Dr. Henri Apjohn came to Yuma in 1900. He was one of the first doctors to practice in the town.  Following his stint at the prison, Apjohn helped organize the city’s first hospital, and in 1919 was the president of the Yuma Hospital Association. He was also the county’s first health officer.

“He had a small office,” Clark says as she holds up a photo of the mustached doctor, “And he made house calls in a horse and buggy.”

Nye’s cases contain the tools of Dr. Apjohn’s trade. Clark knew she wanted to put them on display at the prison, but she wasn’t sure what she had. 

Robert Cannel is a Yuma pediatrician. Despite 50 years in practice, Cannel tells Clark he doesn’t recognize half of the dozens of medical instruments strewn out on the table…

“And what did he do for anesthesia, I wonder?” Cannel asks. 

“Ah! I might be able to show you! I see that we have this!” Clark pulls a wire frame from the pile of instruments with finesse. 

Cannel grins, “The old ether mask!”

Some seem obvious enough, like the mask. Others, like the speculum, haven’t changed much in 100 years. And some resemble torture devices. 

“What is some of—like, this thing?” Clark asks, holding up a thin tube with a loop wire poking out, “Like, I just don’t know what that is.” 

Cannel takes the mechanism and turns it over in his hands. “I don’t—I’ve never seen it before.  See, something snaked out here,” he adjusts the end of the tube and the wire loop gets wider, “and wrapped around, like, a tonsil…and then he could—he could just…” Cannel pulls the slider at the end and the loop disappears into the tube.

Apjohn’s nephew, Arthur Nye, isn’t sure how his uncle’s medical instruments ended up in a cabinet in his California home.  Nye left Yuma in 1939 when he was drafted into the Navy just before World War II. He says the instruments found their way there some time after his uncle and aunt died. 

“When they died, they didn’t know what to do with all this stuff,” he says, “so it all wound up at my house in a nice cabinet for years and years.  And I thought, gee, I’m about to go.  I’d better give it to somebody!”

Now Apjohn’s medical instruments are behind glass in the newest permanent exhibit at the Yuma Territorial Prison, where many of them were once put to practical use.  Arthur Nye’s daughter and Dr. Apjohn’s great-niece, 62-year-old Patti Anderson, came to see it with her father.  She says she’s glad he gave the historical equipment a permanent home.

“He’s had them as long as I can remember but just kind of forgot about them until he recently decided to do something with them that was meaningful,” Anderson says.

When asked why he thought to bring them back to Yuma, Nye has a simple answer: “Because this is home.

Thanks to Arthur Nye, the legacy of his uncle Dr. Henri Apjohn lives on at Yuma Territorial Prison.