Why, you ask? There are plenty of reasons, but today, I want to mention those that compass my work at, with, and through museums. On a near-daily basis, I get to engage with items from the history of medicine that most people only see from a distance. Whether it’s researching the notes in William Hunter’s Gravid Uterus (a book that stands just under half my total height!), getting an up close look at electrical artifacts in the Bakken Museum, or handling “wet specimens” –and a leech named Harvey–at the Mütter Museum, my life’s work is truly charmed.
Rogue on the Road (again)
In early spring, in a snowstorm, I was on the road in search of electrical artifacts (Rogue1) Last week, I spent my days in the College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s library and reading room. This wonderful space (complete with imposing/inviting fireplace) houses over 400 incunables (books printed before 1500), an extensive collection of manuscripts and archives, and a comprehensive collection of 19th and early 20th-century medical journals. This wonderful collection is searchable through the Medical Heritage Library (remember that post? Refresh yourself here!) The library is open by appointment, and it is an appointment well worth making.
But perhaps you are less interested in the books and more interested in the artifacts and specimens? Not to worry! The College of Physicians Library shares a home with the Mütter Museum. This is not so unusual; after all, the Dittrick Museum is located above the Allen Memorial Medical Library. The Mütter itself, however, is definitely beyond ordinary. A “cabinet museum,” Mütter displays an enormous collection of unusual items, pathological specimens, dry (often bone) and wet (mostly in jars) preparations, and instruments in a Victorian-like setting. You can find out more by visiting the “Mütter Minute” Youtube page. You can also find out “What’s on the Curator [Anna Dhoty]’s Desk”!
Something that isn’t on her desk, but which might be on the desk of Museum Director Robert Hicks is a set of medical leeches named Harvey and Hunter. These pleasant chaps have been residents for four years, and I was lucky enough to meet them. Leeches were used for a variety of applications in history and are, in fact, making a comeback–as are maggots. Sound crazy? It’s a all a matter of perspective. When I teach students about the history of medicine, one of the biggest shocks is not how different the past is… but how familiar. We can learn a lot about our present by studying the past (something that has become almost a mantra for me in my work at the Dittrick Museum). The stories of science and medicine, whether they be told through text, image, or artifact, can reveal so much about the way we think of medicine (and our own bodies and minds!) today.
So–a special thanks to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Thanks, too, to the F.C. Wood Institute for the History of Medicine for a generous travel grant. And last but not least, thanks to the wonderful folks who offered their help and friendship while I was there–Robert, Michelle, Annie, Anna, Evi, Sophie and others who, though I met only briefly, make these organizations what they are today.
The Rogue Scholar has been on the road again–and will be off to other collections (like the NLM and Morbid Anatomy Library) before the year is out. But she is happy to be home, too, back at the Dittrick Museum and that history of birth exhibit… “Work” so well-loved that doesn’t feel like work at all.