[Health & Medicine Museums Newsletter - 10 K]
HMM Newsletter - Number 10, March 1996 ISSN 1036-3041

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This happy curator is Gretchen Worden, photographed by Philip Thomson at her desk in the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians, Philadelphia, USA. Says Philip, 'Gretchen is a dynamic person with a stimulating and provocative approach to the presentation of medical history'.

In 1995 Dr Philip Thomson was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to enable him to study medical history and pharmacy displays at significant museums in Canada, the USA and the United Kingdom. Philip is the honorary Curator in Medical History at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. In this issue of the HMM Newsletter he continues his description of some of the places he visited on his wonderful trip.

An exciting new museum was being built at Baltimore - the National Museum of Dentistry with a budget of US$4 million. The building had been given to the organisation by the University of Maryland, right next to the famous Davidge Hall. They have an extensive collection and a whole set of displays has been carefully designed to encompass the entire field of dentistry as well as including some of their more interesting artefacts, such as one or two pairs of George Washington's dentures. This would be well worth a visit by those interested in the history of dentistry after it opens in mid 1996.

In Australia, most gruesome pathological and anatomical specimens are hidden away in medical schools. But there are several museums in the USA where the public can view these sorts of objects with adequate interpretation. One example was the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians in Philadelphia, where many weird and wonderful things were on display. The museum was completely refurbished in the early 1980s and incorporates a wide range of displays to cater for the general public as well as people with a medical background. I don't think Australian museum visitors are quite ready yet for Siamese twins in pots, various presentations of deformities and other unusual pathology. However I think it is worth making our museums more challenging and instructive, so disturbing exhibits may well have a place in the years to come.*

I was able to visit some significant medical history sites, including the Ether Dome of the Bullfinch Building of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where the first general anaesthetic was performed in 1846. The room has not been used as an operating theatre since 1867 but is still used for lectures and grand rounds. I saw Hinckley's famous painting of this operation in the Countway Medical Library of the Harvard Medical School in Boston.

In Philadelphia I viewed the two famous Eakin paintings of the pre- Listerian 'Agnew Clinic' at the University of Pennsylvania and the post-Listerian 'Gross Clinic' at the Jefferson Medical College.

In Scotland, Lister is commemorated in several museums, but most impressively at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. I was able to feel the excitement of this major development in medicine, both in Scotland and later at the College of Surgeons in London. The changes in surgical practices which the medical profession were so reluctant to accept were graphically illustrated in many institutions I visited.

The most exciting development in Britain is the new Medical History Museum in Leeds, called the Thackray Museum. A large building has been obtained from St James Hospital and it has been completely refurbished. The whole museum, like the Dentistry Museum in Baltimore, has been designed right from the beginning with a mission to take medical history to the public in an interactive and fun way. The design of the displays has been developed in conjunction with the syllabus of health studies for secondary school students. A text book is being produced and the museum hopes to open in mid 1996 with a ready-made museum-visiting audience. The current budget is £2 million but it is hoped this will reach £4 million to enable completion of all stages of the project. This will include library, museum facilities, study rooms and other resources to make the museum accessible to the medical historian as well as the public.

There is a plethora of medical history museums in London, the largest of course being the Wellcome Museum of the History of Medicine at the Science Museum - undoubtedly the largest and most impressive medical history museum I have visited. I have been promised a visit to the vast storage areas on my next trip to London! With the amalgamation of several of the old Central London hospitals there is a lot of archival activity and efforts to preserve the historical record of these old institutions.

I was able to return to Australia in time to attend the Mutiny in medicine Conference of the Australian Society of the History of Medicine on Norfolk Island in early July 1995. This was a wonderful way to finish my trip, as it gave me the opportunity to meet many enthusiastic medical historians and hear many stimulating and interesting papers on all sorts of medical history subjects.

I feel very fortunate to have had this wonderful opportunity and hope that, in the years to come, I will be able to put my knowledge, experience and overseas contacts to good use in Tasmania.

*Editor's footnote.

Interestingly, the directors of one of Sydney's pathology teaching collections are currently considering refurbishing the museum and opening it to the public. I wonder if our readers agree with Philip that Australian museum visitors are not yet ready for this kind of exhibit. Comments please. MH

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Back to HMM Home Page] Published by the Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb, 12 June 1996
Prepared by: Lisa Cianci and Lisa O'Sullivan
Updated by: Elissa Tenkate
Date modified: 18 September 1997

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