Slice ’em and dice ’em

Posted on May 26, 2012


The early apothecary had a cure for literally everything.

Most city dwellers have been to the big museum hotspots — Science and Industry, The Shedd, The Field Museum, etc. But one of my goals as an official Chicagoan is to evaluate some of the lesser-known museums — the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, the Oriental Institute or, in today’s case, the International Museum of Surgical Science. I had heard nothing more about the place other than the fact it existed and was located in one of the old mansions on Lake Michigan.

Hopping on my bike (I did get the occasion to dabble in some Chicago urban biking, but it was nothing as extensive as my Boston episode), I travelled there on just about the most gorgeous day. Yes, I decided to use my day off to experience some new sights instead of sitting in my apartment and leveling up my Diablo III character (gasp you should).

The IMSS is indeed located in a beautiful mansion next to the Polish Consulate on the lake. I don’t know if the two organizations have any type of working relationship but, if I were a surgeon, I could think of no better post-operation meal than a potato and cheddar pierogi.


This glass eye was a pupil-ar prosthesis (sorry I couldn’t help myself).

One of the first exhibits to greet visitors is a replica of a turn-of-the-century apothecary. The display was impressive and reminded me of the “Streets of Yesteryear” section of Science and Industry. I guess I never really thought about the history of pharmacology — today, we’re used to pharmacists being the people who put your Prozac into a bottle. But in the science’s formative years, these guys (and by “guys” I mean “men”) made everything themselves and no two cures for ailments were the same. Fun fact: a quack “cure-all” remedy called Orangeine claimed to “strengthen the heart and produce better blood.” In fact, its ingredients did quite the opposite and, in 1902, it was responsible for one death in every thousand people in New York City. So much for taking two and calling in the morning.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it’s human nature — although it could just be my nature — that when I go to a place devoted to surgical science, I’m going to want to see some sick shit. I mean, isn’t that what surgery is all about? As I was going through the four floors, my eyes were peeled for a horse-man or woman who was born with feet for hands. The museum kind of delivered in this regard — it had an impressive collection of bladder and kidney stones and the reproductive system exhibit went from a series of fetuses labeled in detail as to what stage of development they’re in to a completely unlabeled stillborn set of Siamese twins. The most interesting display was a sliced body, which was just as it sounds — the end result if a person were forced through a six-foot harp.

Think about all the blood vessels in your body.

And a surprising amount of space in the museum was devoted to trepanning, which I didn’t even know was a thing. Apparently, the earliest surgeons decided that the best cure for anything was to drill a hole in your head. Headache? Go get the drill. Possessed by demons? The three-eigths bit should do the trick. Constipated? Let’s drain it… through your head!

Overall, the IMSS was a pleasant distraction for a couple hours (sort of worth the $15 admission), and I would recommend it to anyone interested in any kind of medical field. But bring your reading glasses — the first couple floors are filled with murals and statues but, as one progresses upwards, the rooms in the third and fourth floors contain enough reading material to fill up a couple medical textbooks.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I feel a headache coming on.

I have to charge up the drill.

Posted in: Lakeview