We owe the many successes of modern-day medicine to the often treacherous trial and error of our ancestors. Displaying items such as stone age trepanned skulls and cruel instruments of psychiatry, many fascinating museums offer an insight into the way that mental and physical illness was historically explored and treated.
With displays that include a 9-metre-long tapeworm, embryonic conjoined twins and over 750 preserved organs, here are 10 of the most intriguing medical museums in the world.
1. Surgeons' Hall, Edinburgh
As the centre of the Scottish Enlightenment during the 18th and 19th centuries, Scotland’s capital Edinburgh is home to its fair share of morbidly fascinating medical history. Much of this is recorded in the Surgeons’ Hall, which was founded in 1505 to present surgical and anatomical ‘natural and artificial curiosities’, and is now home to a large collection of historical medical marvels.
Originally developed as a teaching museum, the museum today is home to bone and tissue specimens, artefacts, works of art and one of the largest and most historic collections of surgical pathology in the world. A particular highlight is a journey through the dissection room, complete with interactive dissection table. Also don’t miss information about Edinburgh’s infamous body-snatchers Burke and Hare, who committed murder in order to sell bodies to the medical school.
2. Bart's Pathology Museum, London
Barts Pathology Museum in London is based in the grounds of St Bartholomews Hospital at West Smithfield. It is home to over 4,000 medical specimens over 3 mezzanine levels in the striking grade 2 listed Victorian building. One of the largest collections of human pathological specimens in Britain, the museum was opened in 1879 and has since undergone extensive renovation.
Particular highlights of the museum include the skull of John Bellingham, who assassinated Prime Minister Spencer Percival, and was subsequently ‘hanged and anatomized’ for his crime in 1812. In popular culture, the museum is known for being author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s choice as the first location where Sherlock Holmes and his trusty assistant Watson meet.
3. Fragonard Museum, France
Founded in 1766, the Fragonard Museum is one of the oldest museums in France. Over its many rooms it is home to a fascinating collection of anatomy and teratology, articulated animal skeletons, and disease and pathology. The most fascinating exhibits are doubtlessly the flayed figures created by namesake Honoré Fragonard, who was one of the first medical masters of France.
Appointed by Louis XV to be a professor at the first veterinary school in Lyon, his écorchés, or ‘flayed figures’, are made up of carefully dissected and posed animals and curiosities. They are so alarming that the townspeople where Fragonard worked expelled him because they labelled him a madman. Make sure not to miss the écorché of the ‘Horseman of the Apocalypse’, which Fragonard created after he was inspired by painter Albrecht Dürer’s picture of a man riding his horse.
4. Berlin Museum of Medical History at the Charité, Germany
Operated by Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin, the Berlin Museum of Medical History is one of the largest university hospitals in Europe. The museum is located on the grounds of the Charité in a building erected by Rudolf Virchow in 1899 to serve as his Pathological Museum.
Highlights in the museum include an enormous collection of 750 preserved organs, antique prosthetic limbs, extensive x-rays and equipment such as skull drills and enema syringes. Make sure to take one of the walking tours which covers the 18th century anatomy lecture theatre, complete with a dissection table on a raised platform, and hear the stories of ten patients from the 18th century right through to 2006.
5. Meguro Parasitological Museum, Japan
Founded in 1953 by Dr. Satoru Kamegai, Meguro Parasitological Museum in Japan is the only museum in the world entirely dedicated to parasites. It is home to over 45,000 immersed and prepared parasite specimens, and contains a wealth of information about where parasites are located around the world.
The second floor is the most macabre, focusing on parasites that infect humans. The star attraction is a well-preserved 8.8m long tapeworm which was contracted after someone ate trout sushi.
6. Museum of Human Disease, Australia
Located in New South Wales, Australia, The Museum of Human Disease aims to educate the public about the most deadly diseases in history. Founded in 1959 by UNSW’s first professor of pathology, Donald Wilhelm, it was originally used as a training resource to help future doctors recognise and understand disease.
The museum contains over 2,500 disease human tissue specimens, with examples from people who have suffered with HIV/AIDs, cancer, strokes, heart attacks, diabetes, genetic diseases and the effects of drugs.
7. Museum Vrolik, Netherlands
Originally a private collection dating from the late 18th century, Museum Vrolik is the University of Amsterdam’s anatomical and embryological museum. 19th-century medical professor Gerardus Vrolik and his son Willem wrote extensively on deformities, including cyclopia, the pathogenesis of congenital anomalies, and conjoined twins, with the result being a collection containing thousands of specimens.
A number of animal specimens also make for interesting viewing, with the oldest on display dating to the 16th century, and the newest having been added in 1950. As one of the strangest museums in the Netherlands, it is well worth a visit.
8. Paul Stradins History of Medicine Museum, Latvia
Containing more than 203,000 objects, Paul Stradins History of Medicine Museum in Latvia is one of the largest medical museums in the world. Located in a neo-Renaissance building built in 1875, the staggeringly large collection is divided up into many different sections which cover almost everything to with medical history, past and present.
Highlights include trepanned skulls, which are evidence of the ability of stone-age healers to perform complicated surgical operations. Also look out for the Two-Headed Dog, the result of a transplantation experiment by Soviet doctor Demikhov, which was in fact commissioned by the Museum.
9. Bethlem Museum of the Mind, London
Situated within the grounds of Bethlem Royal Hospital in an Art Deco building shared with the Bethlem Gallery, Bethlem Museum of the Mind was formally opened in 2015. The hospital itself was founded in 1247 and was the first hospital of its kind in Britain to specialise in the treatment of the mentally ill.
It aims to promote the work and highlight the successes of those who have suffered or continue to suffer from mental illness, including former patients William Kurelek, Richard Dadd and Louis Wain. It also contains a number of documents and archives which date back to the 16th century.
10. Glore Psychiatric Museum, North America
The Glore Psychiatric Museum in Missouri examines the 145-year history of the adjacent state mental hospital, and illustrates the history of mental health treatment through the ages. The original ‘State Lunatic Asylum No. 2’ opened in 1874 with 250 patients. In 1968, hospital employee George Glore helped construct a series of full-size replicas of primitive 17th, 18th and 19th century treatment devices to raise awareness about mental health.
The result is an extensive collection of surgical tools, treatment equipment, furnishings, nurse uniforms, as well as artwork from hospital patients. One fascinating exhibit tells the story of one patient who spent 72 years in the facility.