“Meeting” the famous Phineas Gage

Day Trip: the Warren Anatomical Museum

I finally made it to the Warren Anatomical Museum – it’s been on my “things to see in Boston” list for ages but for some reason has always seemed too far out of the way on previous trips.

The museum officially dates to 1847. It was created by John Collins Warren who started the collection while he was still a young medical student in the late eighteenth century. Warren graduated from Harvard in 1797 and later practiced with his father at the same institution (that his father had helped to found), assisting with lectures and anatomical demonstrations. He would go on to become a Professor of Anatomy and Surgery and would perform the first public demonstration of ether as an anesthetic at the Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846.

Warren created and collected anatomical specimens for demonstrative teaching purposes throughout his career – which eventually gave rise to the Warren Anatomical Museum collection. His interest was in specimens that could be used for instructing students, but, once the collection was established, many donors tended to send abnormal speciments (body parts deformed due to disease, pathology, or injury).

When Warren donated the collection to Harvard upon his retirement in 1847, it consisted of  1116 specimens – it has now grown to 15,000 items. The display space of the museum is miniscule in comparison to the full collection, consisting of 2 vertical display cases and 2 horizontal display cases on the 5th floor of the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine in an open space that feels more like a hallway than a museum. Despite this complaint, the collection is well worth a visit for those interested in the history of medicine. The cases contain a wide variety of specimens, medical instruments, and anatomical models which include trephining tools and skulls, lancets, scarificators, Laennec’s monaural stethoscope, anatomical models by Louis Auzoux, amputation sets from the 18th century, various post-mortem kits from the 19th century, phrenological busts, a carbolic sprayer, an xray image from 1898, conjoined twins, casts and models of 6-toed feet, and deformed bodies…..

My favourite items were:

  1. A stereoview photograph of an anatomy demonstration in progress that dates to the mid-nineteenth century titled “Physician dissecting a cadaver, believed to be Richard M. Hodges, 1850-1865” (Hodges prepared cadavers for lecture demonstrations at Harvard)
  2. The plaster cast of the head of Franz Joseph Gall and the extra-large sized skull of Johann Spurzheim
  3. The replica double-necked glass ether globe of the instrument used during Warren’s public demonstration (apparently the original is at the Massachusetts General Hospital)
  4. And, of course, as a student in a History of Psychology program my favourite part of the museum was: the entire Phineas Gage display. The display consists of a plaster cast of Gage’s head which dates to 1850, his skull (which is in two pieces: the top portion was cut from the lower portion), the famous tamping iron that made Gage a figure still commonly introduced to every undergraduate psychology student, a skull that was prepared by Henry Jacob Bigelow in 1850 to simulate Gage’s injury, and copies of the two images of Gage which were discovered only as recently as 2009 (Wilgus image; Miller image – of which there are apparently two copies)

Overall, I found it well worth the trip.

Photos were not permitted but apparently I was the only one who listened because there are lots of photos available online – see for example:

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