The Medical Museion

May 10, 2010 § 8 Comments

Photo by Øystein Horgmo © All rights reserved.

The old building of the Royal Academy of Surgeons in Copenhagen now houses the Medical Museion – a meeting point of medical history, art and science. I finally had a chance to visit last weekend.

The first thing that struck me was how much atmosphere the building itself adds to the Museion. The tour of the medical museum started in  the old anatomical theatre. “At this lectern, the anatomist would read from the textbook, while his assistant dissected a body on that table,” the guide started. “And where you are sitting, the students would be perched on the edges of their seats trying to get a glimpse of the organ through the thick haze of tobacco smoke, as they were all smoking their pipes to keep the smell of the rotting corpse away.” That certainly set the tone for the visit.

It’s only possible to see the museum’s permanent exhibition on medical history by attending a guided tour, an approach that has its pros and cons. I personally like to have a well-informed guide to lead the way and choose what’s worth seeing. I have little patience for long explanatory texts.

The excellent guide at the Museion made the different exhibits stick in your mind by way of anecdotes and curious facts. Their guide-only policy also allows the visitor to get much closer to the exhibited items than usual, as there’s little need for barriers and ropes.

The drawback is of course that you can not experience the museum at your own pace, and you usually have to walk around with a larger group of people. Which is why I spent my time taking photos and listening, and had no time to scribble notes. The facts about the different items in the slide show below have been kindly provided by the museum staff.

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Photos by Øystein Horgmo © All rights reserved.

The permanent exhibition focuses on the medical history of Denmark from the 18th Century and up to about 1900, with different themes for the different rooms, such as pharmacy, surgery, dentistry and mental illness.

The guide used the exhibited items as starting points for telling the larger stories of medical progress. Especially effective was the dentistry section with offices from before and after the discovery of bacteria and aseptic technique. I like this way of relaying information, but with a guided tour restricted to one hour, the bigger picture might be lost to those with no prior knowledge of the subject.

I want to show you one item that really stuck in my mind. One of the most prominent, and also completely wrong, theories in the history of medicine is humorism. The theory states that the human body is made up of four different fluids or humors: black bile, yellow, bile, phlegm and blood. Disease is caused by an imbalance between the four humors. Fever, for example, is caused by too much hot blood. The most used and known treatment deducted from this theory is blood-letting. At the Museion another humorism-related cure I’d never heard about before, was exhibited.

Photo by Øystein Horgmo © All rights reserved.

The illustration above shows a woman having the back of her neck pierced with a large needle. And what was this supposed to cure? The common cold, which was believed to be caused by too much phlegm around the brain. So naturally, the cure would be to drain phlegm, for example through a hole in the neck. The patient usually recovered, as you do from a cold, which the doctor no doubt attributed to this excellent treatment.

Intriguing, just like the Medical Museion. In addition to the permanent one, they offer en exiting programme of special exhibitions throughout the year, so I’m planning to visit again. It’s highly recommended.

The Medical Museion has no less than two interesting blogs:

Larger versions of the photos can be found on Flickr.

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