Boston is truly a city of medical and scientific superlatives: the first public smallpox inoculations (1721), America’s first Board of Health (1799), and the first organ transplant (1954). Today this legacy lives on in the groundbreaking work being done in places such as the Massachusetts General Hospital, and across the river in Cambridge, where a number of major pharmaceutical companies are gathered in Kendall Square.
Today, the curious visitor doesn’t have to look far to find out about the city’s fascinating past (and present) endeavors in the fields of scientific and medical innovation, and here are a few places that are worth a visit.
Located on the fifth floor of the Countway Library on Harvard University’s Longwood medical campus, the Warren Anatomical Museum is truly one of the lesser-known gems in the city.
The Museum was started courtesy of a gift by Professor John Collins Warren, who donated his personal teaching and research collection from his many years as a professor of medicine at Harvard. For much of the twentieth century it resided in nearby Gordon Hall, and it finally found a new home here at the Countway in 2000.
Visitors will need to show a photo ID at the library entrance, and they can proceed straight away to the fifth floor via elevator. The Museum consists of a number of display cases, containing everything from gall bladder stones to a number of delicate wax preparations of preserved body parts. The signature item here is the tamping iron that made its way through the head of Phineas Gage on September 13, 1848. It is, of course, a most celebrated case in the annals of medical history, as Gage survived (amazingly), though, many contemporaries noted that he was markedly different after the accident, and some called him “impatient and obstinate.” The exhibits are well worth a visit, and they are open to the general public, free of charge, Monday through Friday from 9am to 5pm.
Today, most people can safely assume that some form of anesthesia will be used in many surgical procedures with relatively little risk. Of course, this was not always the case, and before the use of anesthesia, most surgeries were rather quick (and possibly brutal) affairs. This all changed on October 16, 1846, when William T.G. Morton performed the first public surgery using ether in the Ether Dome at Massachusetts General Hospital. Today, visitors can climb the stairs within the Hospital’s Bulfinch Building to wander around this most wonderful amphitheater. Here they can look at a large oil canvas depicting the famous first surgery, along with a most wonderful Egyptian mummy and a clutch of medical instruments. The room is open from 9am to 5pm, Monday through Friday, free of charge. And what did Dr. Morton say to the audience when he was finished with the surgery that fateful day? “Gentlemen, this is no humbug.”
Located on the corner of North Grove and Cambridge Streets, the Paul S. Russell, MD Museum of Medical History and Innovation is the proverbial new kid on the block, as it is Boston’s newest museum. Opened to the general public in April 2012, the Museum is named after Dr. Paul S. Russell, a distinguished surgeon who practiced his trade nearby at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). The museum contains apothecary kits from the late 19th century, an ether mask, early operating chairs, and hundreds of other items on its two floors. As the museum is part of MGH, it makes sense that the museum also offers a range of video installations that tell visitors about the various accolades and accomplishments that took place just a few hundred feet away. Interested visitors will want to note that the Museum is open Monday through Friday from 9am to 5pm.
Max Grinnell is a writer based in Cambridge, MA, who writes about cities, public art, geography, travel, and anything else that strikes his fancy. He’s the author of several books, and his next book, “Secret Chicago,” will be published in fall 2012. His writings can be found online at www.theurbanologist.com and he tweets over @theurbanologist.