Morbid Road Trip: American Medical Oddities


On our last macabre getaway, we planned an almost-cross-country trip to see various items tied to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. This time around, we’re hitting the road to gawk at cadavers, outdated instruments and the rest of America’s finest medical curios and anatomical monstrosities. Let’s go!

2000+ Objects Removed from People's Throats

© Richard T. Nowitz/CORBIS

We’ll start, just a few miles from my home, at the Mütter Museum, located inside the headquarters of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The whole museum is awesome, and when you’ve got a giant distended colon, a plaster cast of the fused torsos of Siamese twins Chang and Eng, and a corpse that’s turned into a waxy, soap-like substance, it’s hard to pick just one item to highlight.

I’ve always been drawn to their collection of things doctors have pulled out of people’s throats, though. The collection, which includes safety pins, buttons, seeds, bones, coins and even dentures, is massive, and you can spend the better part of an afternoon poring over the various swallowed bric-a-brac. I think what really gets me about this is that all the items are neatly arranged in attractive wooden pullout display drawers, as if they were fine jewelry being exhibited in a Victorian shop.

Coleridge’s Head and Ake’s Body

Heading north to Massachusetts, we'll visit Harvard Medical School. Within its Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, the Warren Anatomical Museum explores the history and science of American medicine. Among its stranger possessions is a phrenology model of the head of poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which supposedly allowed one to deduce certain neurological and behavioral traits based on measurements of the skull. The Museum houses the entire phrenology collection of Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, M.D., one of the last purveyors of phrenology in the U.S, and includes models of many famous heads of his day.

Also at the Warren is a model of Ake, a Chinese boy with a partially-formed parasitic twin protruding from his stomach and sternum. After a doctor's examination in Philadelphia and the subsequent publishing of the findings in a medical journal, Aké became a medical celebrity for a few years and numerous casts and models were made of him and his twin and sent to medical institutions around the world.

A Great Big Hairball

In my Lincoln artifacts list, I mentioned that the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Maryland has three items preserved from Lincoln’s autopsy: the bullet that killed the president, several skull fragments created by the shot, and the probe that was used to remove the bullet. Researching further, I learned that we have Lincoln himself to thank for the museum.

After Surgeon General Clement Finley was fired, Lincoln promoted William Alexander Hammond to the position in 1862. That same year, Hammond founded the Army Medical Museum and instructed Union Army medical officers to “collect, and to forward to the office of the Surgeon General all specimens of morbid anatomy, surgical or medical, which may be regarded as valuable." The Museum eventually became the NMHM, and among its vast collections is one of my must-sees, a trichobezoar, or human hairball, from a 12-year-old girl who compulsively ate her own hair for 6 years.

A Once-Operational Smallpox Quarantine Room

Not too far south, the Pest House, or House of Pestilence, was Lynchburg, Virginia’s first hospital. Located on the outskirts of the town, it was where locals infected with smallpox, cholera, scarlet fever and any number of other contagious diseases were sent to be quarantined until they either recovered or died (the hospital was conveniently located close to the local cemetery). The building has since been cleaned and converted into a museum of the medical science of the Civil War era. Beyond exploring the building itself and its history, you can see a 19th century operating table, “asthma chair,” early hypodermic needles, and a surgical amputation kit.

Charles Lindbergh’s Medical Innovation

Heading to Chicago next, the International Museum of Surgical Science has four permanent collections - medical artifacts, fine art, the Museum Library, and the manuscript collection - in addition to rotating exhibitions. One of its cool artifacts is the Lindbergh perfusion pump invented by famous aviator Charles Lindbergh and surgeon Alexis Carrel. The pump, developed in the early 1930s, produced sterile pulsating circulation and enabled doctors to keep organs functioning outside the body by providing them with necessary blood and oxygen. It has been credited with making complex heart surgeries possible, and paving the way for the heart-lung machine. The museum building itself is pretty cool, too, and was modeled after a chateau at the Palace of Versailles.

A Vibrating Chair and a Radioactive Arthritis Cure

We'll head west to our final destination. The Science Museum of Minnesota in downtown St. Paul houses the items from the late Bob McCoy’s Museum of Questionable Medical Devices. These include a “vibratory chair” used by brothers John Kellogg and Will Kellogg (of cornflakes fame) at the Battle Creek Sanitarium to stimulate the movement of food through the intestines and cure headaches, and a “Cosmos Bag,” a cotton sack filled with low grade radioactive ore that was used to treat arthritic joints in the early 20th century.

All right, same deal as last time: my knowledge is not encyclopedic, so which weird medical museums or exhibits have I missed? (In the U.S. at least; we’ll go world-wide in our next installment.)