International Museum of Surgical Science

“At Home in Chicago” is a consortium of over 20 mansions in the Chicago area that are open to the public.  One of these mansions was built for a wealthy Chicago family in 1917, and faces Lake Shore Drive.  Since 1954, this mansion has housed the International Museum of Surgical Science, which is owned by the International College of Surgeons. This latter group’s purpose statement is: ” Promoting excellence of surgeons and surgical specialists worldwide.” It was founded by a surgeon named Dr. Max Thorek.

Thorek’s grave is at Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago. Since I found his grave by accident, I decided to include it here.

When I visited the museum, I had low expectations, because I thought that it would either be boring or disturbing.  However, I ended up loving my visit. In the past, the museum solely focused on the history of surgery, but now, the scope has widened to medical history in general.

Each room in this gigantic mansion focuses on a different topic.  For instance, one room solely focuses on the medical history of eyes, so the displays include a variety of eyeglasses and eyepieces used throughout history.  Another room focuses on pain and painkillers used throughout history.  From that exhibit, I learned that the drug “Heroin” received its name, because in the late nineteenth century, it was considered a “heroic” drug that cured many ailments. Of course, there was also a room about the history of surgery, and included scary saws and tools that were used to perform surgeries in the past.

One of the rooms that I found the most interesting was devoted to the history of how radiation has been used for medical purposes.  Unfortunately, the pioneers in that field had premature deaths, because they received radiation poisoning by x-raying themselves so much.  X-rays were often used to treat all kinds of medical problems.  The museum even had an x-ray machine that was used at shoe stores to measure people’s foot sizes.  While I was looking at that display (this was in 2018), I overheard an elderly woman telling someone how she remembered having her foot measured that way when she would go shoe shopping with her mother.  Because the negative side effects of radiation do not appear immediately, people used it unwisely for a long time.  It makes me wonder if we are currently using a new technology unwisely, but will not realize how dangerous it is until several decades later.

The museum’s library contains approximately 1,000 books.

Other noteworthy features at the museum include an impressive library of old medical books (not accessible to the general public) and ancient Peruvian heads with holes in them, showing that surgery has been done for centuries.  The only downside to this museum is that if you do not enjoy reading signs, you may not enjoy this museum as much, since it is not very interactive.  However, the museum does offer tours on Thursdays.  Also, it should be noted that on Tuesdays, the museum is free for Illinois residents.

Sources and Further Reading

“The History.” International Museum of Surgical Science. https://imss.org/the-history/ (accessed October 24, 2019).

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