International Museum of Surgical Science – Chicago, Illinois - Atlas Obscura
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Chicago, Illinois

International Museum of Surgical Science

Museum dedicated to Surgical Science, and its assorted arts. 

Surgery has a sordid past. Through the 16th century, barbers also served the role of surgeon, wielding the amputation saw. Before antiseptics, many patients perished at the hands of their surgeon. In modern times surgery remains a scary, but illustrious, discipline of medicine, requiring years of additional study beyond medical school.

Operated by the International College of Surgeons, the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago reveals the intricate history of this curious field. In 1935, Dr. Max Thorek founded the International College of Surgeons in Geneva to promote exchange between surgeons. In 1954, he founded the museum in Chicago (his childhood home). The museum also was a useful tool for educating the public about advancements in the surgery.

The museum has rotating exhibits focusing on medical issues of the past and present. Exhibits cover everything from practical subjects like plastic surgery and diabetes to more creative pieces that happen to be related to the medical sciences, such as sculptures made from bones and machine parts.

Though the museum’s mission is unchanged, they have embraced new methods. In 1990, the museum began curating exhibitions around historical themes and surgical disciplines. Then in 1993, they began displaying contemporary art that dealt with medical themes.

In addition to rotating exhibits, the museum houses four permanent collections: medical artifacts, fine art, the Museum Library, and the manuscript collection. Over 7,000 objects - from acupuncture needles to X-ray machines - are on display. The fine art section primarily offers portraits of influential medical figures. The library contains many early, rare medical books. The manuscript collection includes letters and journals from such notables as Florence Nightingale, Christian Bergmann, and Thomas Guy.

The museum is housed in a unique building on Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. Built in 1917, the building was styled on a chateau in Versailles of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. With Italian marble and a gilded grand staircase, the home is an exhibition in itself. (The heart valves are cooler than the moulding, though.) In the gift shop, you can find everything from a model of the jaw to a giant microbe plush toy.

Obscura Day location: April 9, 2011.