send Email copyright 2013
copyright 1999, Lois Wickstrom
Museum of Medical Curiosities
by Lois Wickstrom
I might as well have asked to rob a bank as ask my parents to let me see the freak show at the Lyon's fair that came to town every summer. It was among the many unspoken taboos that my educated parents sprung on me for no predictable reason.
At first, it was just curiosity -- how does someone look who has two heads, or a mermaid's tail? Later, when my own mother treated me as a disappointing freak because the doctors said I had scoliosis -- a deformity they could only see with an x-ray -- my curiosity became more urgent. Look, Mom, I wanted to say -- these are real freaks, and I'll bet their mothers love them. But by then I was old enough to know better than to ask. The only freak I was ever going to be allowed to see was the one in the mirror.
Thus, when I was in Boston, I was surprised but pleased -- no amazed -- when my husband's buddy decided to get rid of me by giving me directions to the Warren Anatomical Museum. Not only was I finally going to see real freaks -- I was going to see them in a museum maintained by the Harvard Medical School -- it was almost proper enough for my parents. After all -- nobody in a museum ever says, "Oooh, gross!" or "How could a mother love that?"
The museum is located up eight flights of stairs in an
unairconditioned building in the older but clean part of town. The Warren Anatomical Museum used to fill the top three floors of the building and display over 15,000 items. Harvard Medical School has reclaimed all but half of one floor for classrooms and administrative offices. There are no signs indicating what they did with the displaced freaks.
The remaining items (humans, their parts, and paraphernalia) are kept in well-dusted cases, but the formaldehyde is yellowed, and in many jars so much of the embalming liquid has evaporated that the specimens protrude several inches into the air. Perhaps the caretakers are like my parents, and even while they dust, they still refuse to look at, or maintain, the freakish displays. I imagined the families coming to gawk at cousin Jack and his tooth-bearing tumor, only to find his remains in disrepair. But, there was no caretaker to pay attention -- just a book to sign in the hallway.
This museum doesn't just display pickled deformities -- it is truly a medical history museum. Many medical procedures of the past are equally as freakish as the bodies, and their implements, too, have been preserved. I get squeamish at the sight of a speculum, and some of these instruments are even scarier. Some cases are filled with outmoded or foreign medical instruments such as an acupuncture model, and a skull marked for phrenology. Dr. John Collins Warren began collecting these odd specimens as a medical student in London in 1799. When he died in 1856, he donated his collection and his own body to this museum.
One of the first items I saw when I entered the museum was a newspaper clipping which read, "This is not in bad taste. This person is of interest to the medical community. He is being paid $12,000." In other words, the pickled person whose deformed body I was now observing for free used to exhibit himself for a fee when he was alive __ not just to the medical community, but to the public at large. My parents would never have let me see him when he was alive. In fact, I have imbued so much of their morality that I doubt that I would have paid my hard-earned money to see him at all.
My parents would have said there was something wrong or immoral about a man exhibiting his deformity for money. They also seemed to think it was wrong to seek money in beauty contests.
The accomplishments of the mind were, in their view, the only legitimate source of income. I found myself wondering why the man with the extra legs growing out of his chest didn't spend the $12,000 on surgery to remove them, so he could live a normal life. But then maybe he liked the notoriety. Or perhaps he didn't think he could make as much money selling the works of his mind, as he could by displaying his body.
No further self-justifying signs appear over the shrunken heads from the Vivaro Indians of South America, a bound foot from China, a dermatoid cyst from a man's arm, with molar teeth growing in it, or the formaldehyde preserved body of a two-headed miscarried baby. But this museum is maintained by a medical school __ not Ripley's Believe It Or Not. Visitors are expected to maintain decorum as they observe the freakish and bizarre. I was alone in the museum, and there was no one to share my
amazement and fear with anyway.
Some of the displays do stress the cosmetic and disease
prevention aspects of surgery. There is a collection of old medical instruments -- the first device ever used to perform cleft palate surgery on a child, sets of leather covered forceps with the notation "hard to clean," a collection of surprisingly modern looking (but tinted blue from copper oxidation) vaginal speculums from Pompeii, labeled "primitive," (my sentiments exactly for the "modern" ones.)
A prominent case displays the drawings for the first ever plastic surgery operation __ replacing a nose that was removed for criminal punishment. The museum even has the armor bandage that was used to hold the nose in place for three weeks after it was reattached. No sign explains how the criminal got his nose back from the chopping block, and where he found a doctor brave enough to flout justice in the name of medical science.
This display is followed by plaster models showing how plastic surgery was used to repair war injuries that blew away most of a face. These victims didn't have the original parts for reattachment.
The biggest exhibit is the skull of Phineas P. Gage, whose head was tunneled through by a flying tamping bar. An accidental explosion of blasting powder sent the bar flying through the side of Phineas' head in front of his left ear and out the top of his skull. The accompanying description says Phineas' brain
protruded from the holes in his head, and his left eye bulged. Phineas lived twelve years after the injury and drove a six-horse stage coach. He, like many of the people now displayed, also exhibited himself and the bar for money. His family said that after the accident his disposition changed. He became obstinate, fitful and profane, but otherwise they didn't see any changes in him. After his death, his family donated his skull to Warren, along with newspaper clippings describing the accident.
Warren's collection also features other skulls which were donated after fatal injuries all of which were much smaller than Gage's, such as an arrow piercing, or impact by a small cannon ball.
For those of us who wonder how men ever took over the
baby-delivering business from female midwives, the museum has a partial answer. An historical photograph shows a man dressed in a woman's night cap and gown with medical instruments hidden, along with his male genitalia, under his skirts to avoid
frightening pregnant women.
The next museum cabinet featured bulging skulls of hydrocephalic children, and twisted skeletons of people who had pituitary tumors, rickets, and scoliosis. See, I imagined my mother saying, you are a freak -- would you like to donate your spine when you're dead?
Then, in formaldehyde-filled bottles, are the babies. One was a dead ectopic pregnancy that was carried in its mother for seven years, during which time she gave birth to three live children. The display bore a note "the mother died one month after having surgery to remove this ectopic pregnancy." For all its seven years being dead in a fallopian tube, it looked like a perfectly-formed normal baby.
Another jar held a siamese birth with two trunks, joined at the chest cavity, sharing one pelvis with no organs for excretion. And near it was a siren child born with fused legs, a flipper, and also no excretion organs. I'd never thought about those aspects of being a mermaid.
In the case with the acupuncture model is a collection of ceramic phrenology skull models. There are three of Samuel Taylor Colleridge at ages 38, 54, and 62 (death). All show a bulge in the "literary region."
There is a plaster cast of a ten-year-old with a large tumor beside a large tumor (presumably the one from the ten-year-old) displayed in a formaldehyde-filled jar. This tumor is over one foot in diameter. There are models of aneurysms of the heart and femoral artery. And there is a metal cast of a dog's respiratory system that looks like a root system with the plant cut off on top.
Probably the most benign oddity in the museum is the arm of a man who broke his humerus three times in one month and then absorbed the bone fragments. The display shows pictures of the man using his arm to lift 100 lbs, and also wrapping it around his body like a rubber hose. He too, made money displaying himself.
The last exhibit is a locked box containing the body of Dr. John Collins Warren, founder of the museum himself. According to the explicit directions in his will, this box can only be opened in the presence of a living family member. I presume Dr. Warren's body was normal, and it might be interesting to look for phrenology lumps on it. Still, I didn't have the courage to ask to see it. It felt inexplicably taboo.