Making Museums of Medical History

Amanda Bevers University of California, San Diego 2011-2012 Dissertation Research Fellow Of Specimens and Scalpels: Making Medicine in Museums The aim of my research has been to examine the ways in which medicine has been constructed in museums in the United States over the past century and a half, and how this process of knowledge-making was shaped by museums’ local communities and itself shaped the public’s understanding of contemporary medicine. The Mütter Museum of the College of Surgeons of Philadelphia and the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland are the two most famous American medical museums, emphasizing the Civil War as a turning point in American history and the history of medicine, displaying bottled monsters and strange specimens to educate rather than entertain, and working with the government to historically situate the development of scientific medicine in America through their exhibits. My project interrogates the intertwined histories of these institutions, born in the same moment, sharing the same unique collection, and yet exhibiting their collections in very different ways. Examining and comparing the changing use and arrangement of specimens and objects, the politics of exhibit display, and the narratives of medicine in the these two museums during four periods since 1860, reveals the historically situated process of knowledge-making in these museums, further illustrating how they have constructed and presented different narratives of medicine despite their common foundation, and how these narratives have impacted the public. Because Philadelphia was the center of American medicine in the nineteenth century, this community is at the heart of both my research and the narrative I hope to construct with my dissertation. As the smoke cleared and the dust settled on the battlefields at the end of the U.S. Civil War, a messenger from the surgeon general made his way from the Army Medical Museum in Washington, D.C. to the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians in Philadelphia with a piece of the thorax of John Wilkes Booth, who had assassinated President Abraham Lincoln just days after the end of the war. Booth’s tissue was then and is now significant not only because its preservation was made possible by recent advancements in medical technologies and its existence proved the hotly contested death of Lincoln’s assassin at the hands of government officials, but also because it symbolized growing American preoccupation with displays of the human body for medical, forensic, educational, and entertainment purposes [Gretchen Worden, Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia (New York: Blast Books, 2002), 13]. What is more, Booth’s tissue is symbolic of the early relationship between the Mütter Museum and the Army Medical Museum, whose colleagues worked closely together for much of the second half of the nineteenth century, and whose collections were shared and displayed at each institution. Consequently, Philadelphia is currently home not only to the bulk of the collection of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, but also to a large collection of specimens, models, instruments, artwork, and other medical objects from the Army Medical Museum and its successors. The fact that the Army Medical Museum changed location and title several times over the course of the twentieth century contributed to the more frequent loan and transfer of medical objects to the Mütter Museum. My research in Philadelphia not only revealed this incredible relationship between the two museums, but also allowed me to investigate the pieces in the collection at the College of Physicians that had originally been a part of the Army Medical Museum. Furthermore, I was able to access archival material concerning the history of not only the Mütter Museum, but also the Army Medical Museum, at several institutions that are part of the PACHS consortium. I spent most of my time in Philadelphia at the Mütter Museum and the library of the College of Physicians, investing the museum and delving into the libraries vast collection of archival material relating to both the Mütter and the Army Medical Museum. I was able to survey catalogues for the complete collections of both museum in the nineteenth century, data which I will process in the coming months. Curators at both museums have expressed an interest in my data, once processed, in order to utilize this collection information. In addition to catalogues and nineteenth century histories of both institutions, I discovered a complete collection of photographic records of the collection of the Army Medical Museum published after the Civil War, as well as several historical manuscripts detailing the history of both institutions. I also spent a great deal of time delving into the Mütter Museum records, making note of museum acquisitions, visitor records, special exhibit programs, and museum publicity over the last 150 years. The Mütter Museum and the library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia were quite obviously the number one resource for my research on the history of the Mütter Museum, and I found a great deal of relevant material there. I also utilized the nineteenth century Civil War collections of the Library Company of Philadelphia, spending the most time recording notes on the complete volumes of the Medical and Surgical History of the War of Rebellion, the publication that the Army Medical Museum had set as its goal after the Civil war. I was able to investigate several other manuals and manuscripts relating to military medicine during the Civil War, many of which contained descriptions of the technology of specimen preservation and the educational rationale for its museological display at the time. The Library Company of Philadelphia and the Chemical Heritage Foundation both provided me with several manuscripts detailing the development of anatomical museums in Philadelphia, which helps situate my history of the Mütter Museum within the history of the medical community of Philadelphia. At the American Philosophical Society, I spent a great deal of time consulting the Simon Flexner Papers, in order to develop the bulk of my chapter concerning the transformation of nineteenth century medical museums from institutions for medical education to museums for public understanding of scientific concepts. The Flexner Papers also bring to light the extent to which medical museums associated with university medical departments were frozen in their nineteenth century form after Simon Flexner’s report on Medical Education in America, illustrating further how the adaptability of the Mütter Museum and the Army Medical Museum into institutions serving other purposes besides that of medical education, were able to survive into the twentieth century. Lastly, I spent some time at the Wagner Free Institute of Science, interrogating both the museum and the archives for a better understanding of the scientific community of Philadelphia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as a look at the natural history museum of the nineteenth century. This experience and research will help me better place the Mütter Museum—as well as the National Museum of Health and Medicine, the current form of the Army Medical Museum—into both local and historical context as medical societies competing with scientific institutions. Overall, my experience conducting research in the brief month I spent in Philadelphia was not merely helpful—it was incredibly necessary for the development of my project. My research in Philadelphia not only brought to light the deeper connection between two museums I chose to study for their uniqueness, but also revealed the extent to which the two have shared collections despite not sharing the same history. I am incredibly grateful to PACHS for funding my first visit to Philadelphia, and appreciate that the consortium allowed me to investigate a wider range of archives that are central to my dissertation, but that I might not have otherwise discovered without such a collective. The fact that a great deal of archival material and specimens of the Army Medical Museum is located in Philadelphia with the Mütter Museum makes Philadelphia an important site for the development of my project and the narrative I hope to tell. I look forward to more visits and interaction with the wonderful people that are a part of PACHS in the near future.

Amanda Bevers