Surgery museum holds wonders for the brave

BODY WORK  Anatomical displays sit alongside art depicting medical history at the International Museum of Surgical Science.


You would expect a place called the International Museum of Surgical Science to display a lot of sharp-edged instruments — and does it ever. From ancient blades used to cut holes in a patient’s skull (a still-mysterious procedure called trepanation) to the modern devices used to remove blockages from blood vessels, this Chicago museum provides a fascinating historical tour of surgical technology.

In many cases the old gadgets on display would be thoroughly familiar to today’s physicians. Surgical tools unearthed from the Roman city of Pompeii, smothered by volcanic ash in the year 79, are barely different from their modern analogs. These and other relics will appeal especially to those who are medically inclined or have an interest in history.

Yet the museum doesn’t just dwell on past glories. Visitors can see how prosthetics have advanced from the days of peg legs and hooks to high-tech devices made with advanced alloys, and how anesthesia has evolved from a stiff gulp of booze to sophisticated mixtures of pain-killing gases and drugs. A display of artificial heart valves shows how surprisingly delicate the devices are and drives home the intricacy of repairing the human body.

Gazing toward the future, the exhibit Surgicogenomics: Genes and Stem Cells in Surgery offers the promise that a patient’s detailed genetic information could someday be used to fine-tune treatment. Doctors could prescribe medicines and dosages based on how a particular patient, not just the population at large, might respond to a drug. Knowledge of a patient’s genome may one day help doctors identify which patients might benefit from a procedure and which wouldn’t, says Tobias Raabe, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and one of the exhibit’s scientific advisers.

The museum showcases contemporary works inspired by medicine or anatomy. Vesna Jovanovic
The museum resides in a four-story mansion about 2 kilometers north of downtown Chicago. Built in 1917 in the style of a French chateau, the mansion — converted into the museum in the early 1950s — is one of few historic mansions still standing along the lakefront, and the only one open to the public. Its rooms offer intimate spaces in which to view a variety of surgery-themed art alongside science exhibits.

A permanent collection of portraits and murals depicts significant people and events in surgical history, and shows contemporary works inspired by medicine or anatomy, says curator Lindsey Theiman.

Bucking the trend of new hands-on, experiential science museums, these are exhibits mainly for looking, not touching. Many of the artifacts are encased in glass. Large items, such as an apparatus once used by shoe salesmen to X-ray the feet of potential customers, are similarly “hands off.”

Though little about the museum is interactive, one refreshing exception is the current artist-in-residence, Vesna Jovanovic, who spends half-days in her workspace at the museum at least twice each week and is happy to chat at length about her art, techniques and inspirations. Her latest work (shown, center) was inspired by French surgeon Alexis Carrel, who won the Nobel Prize in 1912 for developing ways to seamlessly stitch together major blood vessels. Its title, Sadi Carnot, is an homage to a popular French president assassinated in 1894. Carnot couldn’t be saved because at the time surgeons couldn’t repair his mortal stab wounds — a deficiency that Carrel corrected, to great acclaim.

For museum hours and admission, visit

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