Standing statuesquely in its Gold Coast splendor on Chicago’s lakefront is an exquisite mansion discreetly housing a fascinating collection of art, artifacts, books, medical instruments and interesting exhibits which creatively depict the intriguing historical narrative of surgical science and medicine:
The International Museum of Surgical Science
Whether you’re an aficionado of art, history, science or architecture, this hidden gem will enrapture your imagination and infuse you with rapt attention at the extraordinary history of medicine and its players, fervently reminding you of the incredible milestones medicine has achieved and the new frontiers it ambitiously aims to tackle.
From the moment you enter this historical replica of a French Chateau designed by the well-renowned Chicago architect, Howard Van Doren Shaw in 1917, the cloistered atmosphere of decorative plaster on the walls and a gilded metal grand staircase will transport you to a secret garden of discovery converting those indifferent to science to unabashed fans.
Before entering The Hall of Murals created by Italian painter, Gregorio Calvi di Bergolo (1904-1994) two oil paintings introduce a riveting illustrative story of medicine in its early days that will make you extremely grateful for the modern techniques of minimally invasive surgery, hygiene, sanitation and the separation of church and state. The painting will viscerally carry you back to the medieval times when hospitals were located inside of churches sharing the same space as those attending mass. One can only imagine that scenario was inconvenient and unsettling for both worshippers and patients. In addition, economics had an important influence on the lack of sanitation as beds were reused without cleaning the linens due to high laundry costs.
Upon recovering from that historical horror, a painting hanging to the left illustrates Peruvian Trephining – the oldest surgical procedure where a hole is made in the skull to eradicate a piece of bone. It is theorized that some of these procedures were done to alleviate evil spirits, collect the skull discs for charms, and alleviate headaches or mental illnesses. Based on findings of skulls, some patients experienced this procedure several times in their lifetime – those few who were lucky to survive. No matter what scenario, you may get the impulsive inclination to touch your head as you finally enter the Hall of Murals.
If you’re still standing steadily after absorbing those two paintings, you may be knocked out when you see Calvi di Bergolo’s depiction of early amputations. Imagine no anesthesia and being restrained by a group of men as you struggle to break free from this operation. Apparently, doctors during these ancient times developed an acute skill of speed accomplishing the amputation within thirty seconds.
On the same floor, there is a library stacked with over 5,000 books and rare journals dating back to the 16th and 18th centuries. For those who love the look and feel of old books and manuscripts, you will be in your element with a picturesque marble fireplace positioned in the middle of the room.
Alluring you to enter another alcove decked with marble floors, is the decadent Hall of Immortals, appropriately named, containing exquisite stone statues of medical luminaries.
As you wander past these amazing figurines representing the men and women who have made incredible contributions to the field of medicine, reading some of the detailed exegesis’s placed next to the statue will make you marvel at how discoveries were made when some of these forward thinkers were met with such incredible resistance, as most often are.
One particular stand-out: Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, known as the Martyr to the Science of Medicine, whose story will strike a particular chord for those who can relate to being ostracized for their novel ideas. Also known as the pioneer of antiseptic procedures, he discovered that cleaning delivery rooms with calcium chloride and physicians washing their hands with chlorinated lime solutions would reduce the incidence of puerperal fever - a bacterial infection contracted by women during childbirth or miscarriage. Upon this implementation, mortality dropped.
Despite these discoveries, his peers vilified him for this theory because it lacked a scientific base and the hospital eventually dismissed him forcing him to flee to Budapest where he became a professor of Obstetrics. Angered by the response of his peers, he wrote letters calling prominent obstetricians murderers. His wife and those around him, felt he had lost his mind and committed him to an asylum, where he later died, a tragedy, indeed. Only years later, were his findings scientifically proved.
As you roam past other forward and valorous thinkers such as Marie Cure who discovered the existence of radioactive material, Joseph Lister, a renowned surgeon, who now had scientific proof (thanks to French chemist, Louis Pasteur) that infection could be prevented with sterilization. He became known as "Father of Antiseptic Surgery" with 'the sterilization of surgical instruments and the cleaning of wounds with carbolic acid'. Hippocrates, who is the world’s most revered physician and William Harvey who discovered the blood’s circulation, a myriad of emotions will undoubtedly pervade as you realize just how significantly these men and women pushed the human race forward.
A fun exhibit which adds a lighter note to the day and will give a new appreciation to glasses is the Windows to the World: The Science of Sight and Ophthalmic Art. It boldly states that: “Glasses are a bridge between fashion and science and has been greatly influenced by trends in fashion, history and religion.”
In a glass case, there are staggered rows of elegantly designed “quizzing glasses” which some eyewear fashionistas are hoping will come back in style, and rightfully so. Monocles, on the other hand, which were a symbol of the aristocracy, could be a challenging fashion trend to reinstate. The accoutrements of opera glasses will make the romantics long for the historical times when people actually dressed up to go to the opera and vintage lovers will go absolutely wild over the neat collection of glasses from earlier times. The vast collection of over 1,000 objects presents a comprehensive overview of ophthalmology and the evolution of spectacles and provides an in depth summary of ophthalmic history in the United States. This exhibit is the largest in the Midwest.
Shedding light on the issues of Polio - a viral disease that can affect nerves and can lead to partial or full paralysis - the museum’s curator dedicated an entire room for viewers to get an understanding of the origins of polio, the causes, the history and the progression in its cure.
Taking center stage in this exhibit is the massive machine called, Iron Lung, which was an air-tight chamber used during polio epidemics in the US during the 1940's and 1950's for those whose chest muscles were temporarily or in some cases permanently paralyzed affecting their inhalation and exhalation. Patients were encased in this apparatus where air pumps helped them breathe.
The video presentation will leave viewers hopeful by the tremendous efforts and outstanding results made by Rotary International in their attempts to eradicate Polio.
The museum’s convenient placing of chairs and mini chaise lounges is refreshing and allows patrons to give their stimulated senses a rest. In some of the rooms, a view of Lake Michigan on a clear day provides a soothing backdrop and for some it will serve as a metaphor of the vast amount of possibilities an idea has to offer which has already been proven by the medical dignitaries honored in the museum.
Once you’ve regrouped, there is a fascinating pre-natal room with figurines of the fetus in various stages of pregnancy. A poster covering the entire wall gives a play by play of the stages of development. This room is not to be missed as the creation of life is absolutely remarkable.
Other rooms are filled with numerous historical medical instruments, two especially fearful looking ones: the amputation saw and the vagina specula – which is 1,000 times scarier than what modern day women are subjected to in the dreaded gynecologist’s office.
In the propinquity, there is a mindboggling exhibit of genuine stones of every sort and these aren’t the stones that are worth a lot of money. They are the ones you want to get rid of: Gallstones, bladder stones, kidney stones. This exhibit may give bad memories to those who have experienced these types of stones and a great sense of relief for those who have never had them.
Other exhibits at a glance:
Check out the website to get a complete overview of what this museum offers.
A special exhibit on the future trend in medicine: Surgicogenomics – a thorough presentation on the juxtaposing of genetics, stem cell research and surgical practice
Japan Hall of Fame
An exhibit which illustrates how Japanese surgeons have shaped modern surgical science, such examples being: ultrasound, anesthetics and surgical stapling.
Milestones in Medical Imaging: From X-Ray to Nuclear Medicine
An in-depth look at the invention of the X-ray and its medical evolution
Nursing: Care for a Changing World
Contains historical artifacts, photographs and manuscripts educating patrons on the history and evolution of nurses
Supporting Structure: Understanding the Spine and Spinal Surgery
A maze of photographs, manuscripts, historical surgical instruments and in-depth overview of historical methods of treating spinal injury to present day treatments.
Artist in Residence: Annie Heckman
Curated by Lindsey Thieman
An exhibit with an animated slideshow in progress and drawings touching upon
the skeletal system, trephination, herbalism, mortality, and neuroscience.
This museum is a jewel of information and discovery.
It’s not to be missed.
For those Chicago locals: Don’t ignore this museum. Go!
For those intending to visit Chicago: Put this on your list!