The gruesome appeal of medical museums is twofold. While dissected cadavers, preserved parasites, and diseased organs fulfill the sick fascination for human oddity in all of us, the fact that it is a “museum” makes visiting them a commendable act of self-education. A real win-win!
This dichotomy between repulsion and fascination for the human body is nothing new. The first “medical museums” were actually personal collections of medical oddities, and they’ve been incredibly popular since Renaissance Europe when aristocrats would create their own and charge for viewing. Whether they were called Cabinets of Wonder, Kunstkammer, or Wunderkammer, these collections fulfilled both private curiosities and played an important role in assisting medical professionals– they play a similar role in modern culture. Although not all Cabinets of Wonder were purely medical, many of the oldest (and sometimes strangest) artifacts in modern medical museums were donated by the benefactors of such collections.
Medical museums are unquestionably not for the squeamish, but there are a surprising number of them out there. Since they are usually off-the-beaten-track and not particularly popular, they are a fascinating way for tourists to see parts of the cities they might not otherwise have seen. And there’s nothing like a medical museum’s gift shop to score that perfect postcard to mail to your grandma back home.
(WARNING: some of the following images, while taken mostly of plastic models, are extremely detailed and graphic in nature. Proceed with caution – NSFPeople with sensitive sensibilities, squeamish beware! [Ed. note: travel blog editors included... blech])
1. Semmelweis Museum of Medicine, Budapest
Image: Curious Expeditions/Flickr
Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian physician born in 1818 who has been credited with being the “savior of mothers” by discovering something modern people think of as basic knowledge. Semmelweis noticed that women giving birth with the help of doctors had three times the mortality rate than women giving birth with the help of midwives. The only difference he noted was that the doctors were involved in examining the cadavers of women who had already died of childbed fever. The midwives did not examine the cadavers. Smartypants Semmelweis concluded that “cadaverous particles” on the doctors’ hands were being transferred to the healthy mothers, and they were being poisoned.
Solution? Semmelweis told all doctors to wash their hands after manhandling cadavers infected with disease and before helping healthy mothers give birth, and voila! Within a few years the rate of childbed fever was reduced to 30% of mothers to almost zero.
In his honor, the Semmelweis Museum of Medicine was opened in the former home of the doctor, and many a medical mystery is spread over four rooms of the period home. Even though all the museum descriptions are in Hungarian, you’ll get a great sense of the history behind the science through the reconstructed 19th century pharmacy. Be sure not to miss the Anatomical Venus. There are only three of her in the world; her gutted, gaping insides juxtaposed with her stunning beauty make for a pretty jarring experience.
2. Josephinum Medical Museum, Vienna
Founded in 1785 by Emperor Joseph II, this museum was originally a medical academy designed to train doctors and midwives. Although the school is long gone, the absolutely exquisite anatomical and obstetrical models that were commissioned for the school are luckily still around. Made under the supervision of master anatomist Paolo Mascagni between 1784 and 1788 in Florence, 1,192 different models were shipped to Vienna where they have survived in their cases of rosewood and Venetian glass.
Today the Josephinum is home to the largest collection of obstetrical wax models in the world, and also some of the most beautiful. The makers of these models were so detail oriented, they created individual veins by dipping thread into different colors of glass. At a time when cadavers were messy and hard to come by, these models served as a medical student’s only “hands-on” training.
Be sure not to miss another example of the Anatomical Venus, with this particular model sporting a set of pearls and a gold circlet around her head.
3. Icelandic Phallological Museum, Husavik
Image: C. G. P. Grey/Flickr
They got some in jars, some mounted on the wall, and some hang out behind glass cases. At the Icelandic Phallological Museum, there are penises everywhere! With 272 specimens (both penises and “penile parts”) from 92 different species of animal (including 16 whale and one “rogue polar bear”), the museum aims to collect penis specimens from every animal in Iceland. In addition to all those species that one might be able to spot in Iceland, the museum also has a penis collection of a more fanciful kind, including: elves, trolls, and sea monsters.
Image: C. G. P. Grey/Flickr
Image: C. G. P. Grey/Flickr
Currently the museum has a collection of silver casts of the Icelandic National Handball Team who won Olympic Silver in 2008, and soon the collection of Homo sapien penises could get even, ahem, bigger. Some reports claim a human specimen has been promised posthumously by 95 year-old Icelander Pall Arason.
4. Musée Fragonard, Paris
Although it may not seem like it today, for much of human history the arts and sciences were so closely intertwined, it was often hard to see where one ended and the other began. This is shown clearly in the work of Honoré Fragonard, who was both an anatomy expert and a ground-breaking artist. A teacher at the first veterinary school in France in 1762, Fragonard created elaborate “écorchés”, figures of human or animal bodies without skin to help teach his pupils.
Although many écorchés were done with paint on canvas or ceramics, Fragonard instead utilized cadavers which he turned into “flayed figures” (think: BodyWorlds). He was incredibly secretive about his process of preserving and mounting the figures, and even to this day his methods have yet to be discovered.
Image: Ted Drake/Flickr
Although he was considered a madman and was eventually driven out of the school, today he is revered as an artistic master with an incredibly scientific eye. Out of 700 flayed pieces created by Fragonard, only 21 remain, all of which are on display at the Museé Fragonard. Make sure not to miss his most famous piece, “The Horseman of the Apocalypse” based on a print by Albrecht Durer. The display consists of a man riding a horse, both flayed, and surrounded by a gaggle human fetuses riding sheep and horse fetuses.
5. Meguro Parasitological Museum, Tokyo
Ever wonder how big of a jar you would need to house a 29 foot tapeworm? Perhaps you’re curious what a distended testicle of a human hosting a tropical bug might look like? Or maybe you just want to spend Friday night at the hottest date-spot in all of Meguro, Tokyo. If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, the Meguro Parasitological Museum is the right place for you!
Image: Megan Forry/Flickr
Established in 1953, the museum has amassed a collection of over over 300 parasite specimens. Located in an unexpected and quiet residential neighborhood, the Parasitological Museum claims its collection is, “one of the most distinguished museums in the world”. Although the Louvre, the Met, and the British Museum might not agree with that claim, the parasite museum is definitely one-of-a-kind. It even employs a rope the same length as its famed tapeworm, so people can “get a feel” of what the real thing is like. Neat!
6. Mütter Museum, Philadelphia
Image: John Dunges/Flickr
Although there are many important historical artifacts on display in Philadelphia like the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, the more morbid, err, “curious” museum go-er shouldn’t miss the Mütter Museum, billed as America’s largest museum dedicated to medical oddities. Located inside the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the original collection was donated by Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter and was intended for educating the doctors studying there. Today, the items on display are half-sideshow freak, half-scientific wonder.
Some of the museum’s most outrageous items are:
A 9-foot-long human colon that once was home to over 40 pounds of fecal matter, named “The Human Balloon” while on display at a sideshow.
The tallest skeleton in North America.
A 2,000 object collection of items removed from people’s throats, organized into drawers labeled “Bones”, “Coins”, “Dental Material”, and “Nuts, Seeds, Shells or Other Vegetable Substance”.
A malignant tumor removed from President Cleveland’s hard palate called “The Secret Tumor of Grover Cleveland”.
The conjoined liver and plaster death cast of Chan and Eng Bunker, the world’s most famous conjoined twins, born in 1811 and the namesakes of the term “Siamese Twins (the brothers were born in “Siam”).
Another one of the Mütter Museum’s totally bizarre artifacts is the body of the “Soap Lady“, the corpse of an obese woman who perished of yellow fever in the 19th century and was buried in soil that contained certain chemicals that turned her remains into a soap-like substance called adipocere. For more than a century her frightening body has been on display at the Mütter Museum, and toxicology reports are still being conducted to learn more about this mysterious woman and her unusual postmortem life.
Note to all enthusiastic photographers: The Mütter Museum doesn’t allow photography, so if you were hoping to snap a pic next to the Soap Lady for you’re next holiday card, you’ll have to do it on the sly.
7. Musée de la Médecine, Brussels
We think every sex-ed class in Belgium should be required to take a field trip to Musée de la Médecine. With over 300 wax anatomical models showing the ravages of venereal diseases, the exhibit was always intended to shock and awe. Many of the models on display are part of the Spitzner collection, an infamous group anatomical models displaying different parts of the human body afflicted by a multitude of unfortunate STDs. In the 19th century, the Spitzner collection made its rounds in fair grounds throughout Europe in an attempt to warm common folks of the unpleasantness that could befall them, and the models are still pretty darn effective to this day.
8. National Museum of Health and Medicine, Washington D.C.
Washington D.C. is an absolute hub for history museums and America-themed artifacts. Although the National Museum of Health and Medicine qualifies as the first and has a bucket load of the second, it can’t seem to draw in the crowds like most other D.C. destinations. Maybe it is because it’s tucked in a remote corner of government-ville, situated behind the Walter Reed Medical Center. Or maybe it’s because the museum’s collection of presidential body parts and Civil War medical memorabilia are not exactly what vacationers have in mind when they think of wholesome family fun.
Established during the Civil War as a medical research center and museum, the original curator frequented battlefields and asked for “donations” from doctors working on the fronts. After the war, the museum collected photographs of the wounded so they could see the gruesome effects of gunshot wounds and amputations. As the US advanced medically, so did the National Museum of Health and Medicine, and it is even credited with discovering that yellow fever was spread by mosquitoes, not human contact, which was a huge breakthrough in treating the deadly disease.
Today the museum has an astonishing collections of around 25 million artifacts with everything from 8,000 preserved organs to 5,000 skeletons to 12,000 pieces of medical equipment. But the museum’s most famous artifact is a little piece of Abraham Lincoln, literally. On display are pieces of Lincoln’s skull and hair, the bullet that killed him, the probe used to search for the bullet in his skull, and the shirt cuff, stained in blood, of the surgeon who searched for it.
9. Kunstkamera, St. Petersburg
Russia is a pretty huge place, but it didn’t get its first museum until 1727. Although the country might have been a little late in the museum-game (the UK had them beat by some 50 years), Russia’s first museum sure made up for it. Built by Peter the Great, Kunstkamera originally held the Tsar’s personal treasures, which were moved from their original home in his Summer Palace. Peter’s personal collecting had a little of this (fetuses with anatomical deficiencies) and a little of that (skulls with encephalitis-swollen skulls), and although opening his morbid collection to The People may have seemed appalling, Peter had good reason to do it.
In an attempt to modernize the people of Russia, Peter saw great importance in eradicating the superstition and fear of the unknown that crippled Russian society. By displaying abnormalities, diseases, and afflictions openly and with an inquisitive eye, Peter hoped to show Russians that these things were the result of science instead of curses. He even went so far as to create a decree that the bodies of all infants with deformities were required, by law, to be “donated” to the museum.
Today the collection holds an astonishing 2 million artifacts. One thing not to miss? The decapitated head of Willem Mons. Mons was publicly drawn and quartered in 1724 after having been convicted of treason. Although he may have doctored the Tsar’s books a bit, it is widely believed he was actually being punished for his liaison with Empress Catherine, Peter the Great’s wife. After being hanged, having his entrails and genitals removed before his eyes and burned, then being cut into four pieces, his head was chopped off and placed in alcohol…where it remains to this day in the museum.
Been to a great medical museum we left off the list? Let us know!
A special thanks to the Atlas Obscura website for its help in researching this post!
[Main Image: Aphexlee/Flickr]