United States

The biological and medical history of the United States must be viewed in the overall context of its general history. This, as compared to the countries we have already considered, is relatively short, and in addition much of this has been primarily concerned with frontier and quick developmental problems, rather than with science. Indeed we think it reasonably accurate to say that science in the United States did not come into its own until World War II, but with this it quickly became one of the leading scientific countries of the world. There is another pertinent factor however, which is that as a nation it is not very good at preserving its cultural heritage, the regrettable tendency being to bulldoze everything under and start again. In addition it is a large country, expensive to get around in, and thus we have not yet been able to visit and describe some of the places we would have liked to. All this having been said, there are some things of historical interest and importance in biology and medicine with which to tempt the reader. Since almost everything we will refer to is in a large city, we do not think it necessary to indicate their location or how to get to them.


Boston, Massachusetts, is one of the oldest cities in the U.S.A., and has played a major role in the cultural development of the country, not the least aspect of which has been its role in scientific development. This has largely been based in and around Harvard University, which is the oldest institution of learning in the United States. It was founded in 1636, and at first conferred only arts degrees, but as early as 1782, it had a medical school. This, together with the accompanying biological and physical sciences has generally prospered, and today Harvard is one of the great universities of the world. It was in close association with the Harvard Medical Faculty, that the first introduction of surgical anesthesia in medicine took place in 1846. A major milestone in the history of medicine.

Massachusetts General Hospital

Cambridge and North Grove Streets
Boston, Massachusetts
Opening hours:
Normal business hours.
This is an active hospital.

The Massachusetts General Hospital is the oldest in Boston, with origins going back to the early 19th century, and is today a vast complex of buildings. Its world-wide fame is due to many discoveries and events which have taken place there, but none compares in importance with the first effective use of surgical anesthesia which was administered there on October 16, 1846.

There is considerable doubt as to who was actually the first person to use anesthesia effectively, in the sense of suppressing pain, particularly during surgery. Thus a short account here of this history is pertinent, and will give the reader more perspective.

It has been pointed out elsewhere (see under London and Edinburgh, Britain) that operations prior to anesthesia can only be described as “nightmares,” and were usually confined to amputations or some form of superficial surgery. Nevertheless pain suppressing drugs have been used throughout recorded history, heroin and alcohol are two common examples, and the art of hypnotism has also been used for centuries. However, towards the end of the 18th century chemistry was far enough advanced that new gases were becoming available which had extraordinary properties. One of these was nitrous oxide (commonly called laughing gas) and the famous English chemist, Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) experimented with this as early as 1799. He tried it out on himself, realized it produced insensibility to pain, and suggested that it should be used during operations. Nothing seems to have come of this, probably because the social and medical “climate” was still not ripe for such a novel idea.

During the early part of the 19th century other gases were produced, and one of these was sulphuric ether. This also produced insensibility to pain, and it became popular amongst the socially elite, particularly in the United States in the form of “ether frolics.” These were essentially “avant-garde” parties during which the participants sniffed varying amounts of ether. AT one of these, the imagination of a young surgeon from Georgia was aroused by the fact that when a person under the influence of ether was injured he did not seem to feel any pain. The surgeon’s name was Crawford Williamson Long (1815-1878), and he immediately realized the potential of ether. On March 30, 1841, he tried it out successfully on one of his patients during the removal of a tumor from the neck. We know very little about long. He was born in Danielsville, Georgia in 1815, received his early education in Athens, Georgia, studied medicine and received his degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1839. After graduation he worked for a while in various New York hospitals, but soon went back to Georgia where he became a successful physician. He died in Athens in 1878.

Shortly after Crawford Long first used ether as an anesthetic, a young dentist named Horace Wells (1815-1848) from Hartford, Vermont, used nitrous oxide on himself while an assistant painlessly extracted one of his teeth. This was in 1844, and Wells subsequently used nitrous oxide on many of his patients. Wells was thoroughly convinced of the effectiveness of nitrous oxide, and in 1844 he persuaded a Dr. John Collins Warren of the Harvard Medical School to let him demonstrate his discovery during the extraction of a tooth at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Unfortunately, the demonstrated failed, as the patient experienced severe pain, and Wells was laughed out of the hospital. Thereafter Wells was a tragic figure. He became addicted to chloroform, with which he also experimented, his mind failed, and in 1848 at the early age of 33 he committed suicide, while in a New York jail.

Wells at one time had a dental partner by the name of William Thomas Morton (1819-1868). He was born in Charlton, Massachusetts, and studied dentistry in Baltimore. He was also a medical student at Harvard, but left before receiving his degree. While practicing dentistry in Boston he got to know a chemist by the name of Charles T. Jackson, who gave him some ether and suggested its use as an anesthetic. Morton successfully used ether on a patient in September 1846, and a few weeks later persuaded Dr. Warren, the Harvard surgeon, to let him give, like Wells before him, a public demonstration of this at the Massachusetts General Hospital. This was done on October 16, 1846. There are several fragmentary and differing accounts of this great event. The name of the patient was Gilbert Abbott, and he was to have a tumor removed from his neck. Morton was late for the operation – not a good beginning! – but in due course he arrived and administered the ether by mouth from his primitive inhalator. Dr. Warren then proceeded with the operation, which lasted about three minutes, during which the patient did not move nor indicate any signs of pain. When it was over and the patient aroused, Dr. Warren asked him if he had felt anything, to which he replied “I thought I felt someone scratching at my neck” upon which Warren turned to his audience and said, “Gentleman, this is no humbug. We have seen something today that will go around the whole world!” Warren’s words proved to be correct, even though it took a considerable time to improve the techniques of administration of the drug. But effective anesthesia was henceforth on its way as a medical aid, and one of the greatest blessings to humans. The introduction of anesthesia ranks with antisepsis as a major medical advance, and both of them were prerequisite to the development of modern surgery.

Unfortunately the story of the discovery of anesthesia does not have a happy ending. After Morton’s demonstration in the Massachusetts General Hospital the news spread rapidly, but there ensued a bitter controversy between Morton, Jackson, Wells and Long as to priority. Jackson, Wells and Long wanted nothing from their discovery except to benefit mankind. The same cannot be said of Morton, who generally does not seem to have been a likeable character. He tried for the rest of his life to patent anesthesia and extract a royalty for every anesthetic given. However, he was unsuccessful in this, neglected his practice, and died in poverty in New York in 1868.

The Ether Dome

Bullfinch Building

The scene where the famous first operation using anesthesia took place is in the Ether Dome of the Bullfinch Building. The dome can actually be seen on top of the building form the outside, but is best seen from the inside. Permission for this must be obtained from the hospital administration, but is normally granted if the room is not in use. The Ether Dome was originally the operating amphitheatre of the hospital and was used as such from 1821-1867. It has undergone several alterations since then, and is now used as a demonstration and lecture room. Nevertheless, it was here that anesthesia became a meaningful reality, a fact commemorated by a large plaque on the main wall of the amphitheatre. It reads as follows:




It is a truly emotionally rewarding experience to stand in this room and realize the great event which took place here. IN the room there are also displays of various early types of apparatus for the administration of anesthetics.

As pointed out previously, Morton administered his anesthetic by mouth from a glove-like glass inhalator. The original of this survives, but is so valuable that it is kept in the hospital vault and is not available for viewing. However, an exact replica of it has been made, and this is displayed in the main corridor of the ground floor of the Bullfinch Building. There are other fascinating display cases here as well. The visitor cannot help but be impressed with the long way we have come since the introduction of anesthesia in 1846. There are many other interesting places in Boston, which are of interest in the history of biology and medicine, but none approaches in importance the one we have described.


The Dittrick Museum of Historical Medicine
11000 Euclid Avenue
Cleveland, Ohio
Opening hours:
Monday – Friday, 10.00 – 17.00
Sundays, 13.00 – 17.00

The Dittrick Museum of Medical History is located on the beautiful grounds of the Case Western Reserve University in downtown Cleveland.  The main part of the museum is located on the third floor in the Allen Memorial Medical Library (see picture).  It takes its name from the main driving force, Howard Dittrick, a physician born in Canada in 1877 who practiced medicine both in Canada and the United States.  He moved to Cleveland and worked both as a physician and a medical editor for the Cleveland Medical Library Association.  He became interested in medical history and was placed in charge of the Medical Historical collections.  This became his life long avocation.  In 1945 the Library Association named the museum after Dr. Dittrick.  He passed away in 1954.

Just before you enter the main part of the museum on the third floor, there is a large painting of Dr. Dittrick.  It is located between the main museum and the rare book room which houses an extensive library containing first editions of Freud and Darwin.  The room also has a fine collection of rare books on dermatology, venereal diseases, epidemiology, and herbal medicine.  The museum itself is mostly dedicated to medicine post 1800.  There are two mock-up of a pharmacy dating around 1890.  One small room off the main part of the museum houses an extensive display of surgical instruments dating from the 1850’s through the 1890’s.  Included are beautifully kept amputation sets from surgeons in the area including some Civil War pieces.  On the wall opposite these surgical sets are obstetrical instruments dating from the 1750’s up until the 1920’s including entire sets of birthing forceps used both in Europe and the United States during these periods.

One of the walls there is a nice display dedicated to the early age of anesthesia.  Included are various means of delivery of ether, chloroform and nitrous oxide.  Other instruments of interest include a 1920’s neurosurgical table, an early EKG machine and a pediatric iron lung.

On the day I was there, I was fortunate to run into James M. Edmonson, PhD, the museum’s chief curator, who spoke at length with me about the history of the museum, its present status and its future plan.  We walked down to the second floor, the main part of the library and proceeded to the three reading rooms.  These three two storied rooms occupy the very eastern side of the library.  Each room is rather unique and rather different.  The front reading room walls are completely surrounded by antique microscopes, all beautifully backlit in their own satin lined alcove.  The middle reading room, the two story walls are filled with antique surgical sets, each brightly lit, again, in their own cloth-lined alcove.  The third room is the more modern up-to-date medical history room with the entire room lined with medical history reference books and tables ladened with laptops enabling students to surf Med Line and Index Medicus for the latest articles.

Standing there in these reading rooms with Dr. Edmonson, surrounded by the antique surgical instruments and microscopes, I couldn’t help but feel immersed in the history of medicine.  Dr. Dittrick’s contributions to modern medicine do not cease to exist today.  He created a shrine to all whose lives and endeavors have furthered mankind’s quest to understand and interact with the miracles of life.  These walls can talk and their contents communicate the wisdom and perseverance of many to the few who sit in these rooms to study and continue the quest.  I can see why the Howard Dittrick Museum is considered one of the five finest medical museums in the United States, the others being the Mutter in Philadelphia, the Warren in Boston, the National Museum of Health and Medicine and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History both located in Washington, D.C.


Every medical student has to spend at least six to eight weeks on a surgical service in their third year of medical school. During my tenure at the University of Illinois, I have been presenting a history of surgery lecture to these students. One of the questions that I ask is “when was the first laparotomy?” I do not ask them for the first surgery because I&D of abscesses and amputations have probably been performed since the beginning of recorded time. However, I ask them “when was the first time a surgeon opened a person’s abdomen after the patient consented to surgery, removed an organ, closed the abdomen with the patient surviving?” The medical students’ answers vary from ancient Rome or early Egyptian history to the Italian Renaissance. They are all surprised when I tell them that the year was l809. The surgeon was Dr. Ephraim McDowell and the place was Danville, Kentucky.

On December l3th, 1809, Dr. McDowell was asked to see Mrs. Jane Crawford, a 44 year-old-woman, who lived sixty miles away at Motley’s Glen, Kentucky. Mrs. Crawford had been followed by two doctors who thought she was pregnant. However, in early December, because they could no longer hear fetal heart tones, the diagnosis of pregnancy was in doubt. Dr. McDowell examined the patient and found that her uterus was normal in size and her enlarged mass was off to the side. He diagnosed the patient as having a tumor of the ovary and told her that she needed an operation. He stated that he had never performed an operation such as she needed and he didn’t know if one had ever been done before.* However, if she believed in him, she could come to Danville and undergo surgery. Dr. McDowell was surprised when on December 22nd, Mrs. Crawford rode into town and consented to surgery. He was going to perform the surgery on December 24th but he wanted to wait for the bruise she received from the saddle horn to improve. On Christmas morning, with his nephew handing him instruments, he made a 9” incision in the patient’s abdomen and removed a 15 pound ovarian tumor. The operation lasted 25 minutes. There was no anesthesia at this time and the patient anesthetized herself by reading the Bible. Five days later, she was up making her own bed and in 25 days, she returned home by horseback in good health.

Dr. McDowell did not publish his account until he had performed two further successful operations in l8l3 and l8l6. He published his report of three successful ovariotomies in 1817. A copy of this report was sent to his old professor, John Bell of Edinburgh, Scotland. John Bell who was in Rome at the time, died shortly thereafter. However, his successor, Dr. John Lizars, received the report. He did nothing at the time but in 1825 published his own paper on extraction of diseased ovaries and in his summary, gave credit to Dr. McDowell’s original paper and credit for performing the first one.

Who was this Ephraim McDowell? He was born in Virginia in l77l and moved to Kentucky at l3 years of age when his father was appointed as judge at Danville, the first Capitol of the state. He apprenticed under Dr. Alexander Humphreys before going to
Edinburgh where he attended medical school in l793. In Edinburgh he studied under both Dr. Alexander Monro and surgery under Dr. John Bell. In 1795 he returned to Danville, Kentucky as its only surgeon.

McDowell died in l830 at 59 years of age after a two week illness, probable acute appendicitis with perforation. McDowell was buried in the family burial ground five miles from Danville but in l879, his remains were moved to what is now called McDowell Park.

The house in which Dr. McDowell performed the first ovariotomy is now carefully preserved and restored as a museum. It is located in downtown Danville and is open to the public Monday through Saturday, 10 AM to 4 PM and Sunday from 2PM to 4 PM. General admission for adults is $5.00.

Note: While you are in beautiful Kentucky, you may also want to see the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, our l6th president of the United States. Approximately 68 miles away. about an hour and a half drive, in Hodgenville, Kentucky is a park and monument dedicated to the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln. On the way there, you can also stop at the Lincoln Homestead State Park which is approximately 40 miles from Danville. Here you can see the Lincoln Homestead which includes the Lincoln cabin and blacksmith shop where Lincoln’s grandmother raised her five children including Thomas Lincoln, father of Abraham Lincoln.



This is an island in Lake Huron at its northwestern tip, just where it joins Lake Michigan. It was here on June 6, 1822 that an accident occurred which gave an opportunity to an American army doctor to make some very important discoveries in the field of gastric physiology. The doctor’s name was William Beaumont (1785-1853) and he made full use of the opportunity. This event is commemorated here. The island can only be reached by ferry (no cars) from either Mackinaw City or St. Ignace.

William Beaumont was born in Lebanon, Connecticut, the son of a farmer. He did not wish to become a farmer himself, left home as a young man, and for about three years he taught in primary schools, but soon became a doctor’s apprentice and received a license in 1812 to practice in Vermont. This was the year war broke out between Britain and the United States, and Beaumont quickly joined the army as a surgeon. He served in a variety of places, but in 1822 he was ordered to Fort Mackinac, and on June 6th the now famous accident occurred. – A French Canadian trapper by the name of Alexis St. Martin, received a massive wound in his left side from a musket. Both the stomach and one lung were severely damaged. He was quickly put under the care of Beaumont, who did what he could for him, but he did not expect the trapper to live. However, in one of those rare instances where “nature simply takes a hand,” Alexis St. Martin did live, and as the wound healed a gastric fistula developed between the abdominal surface and the interior of the stomach. The word fistula is derived from the latin, meaning “pipe,” and this accurately described the situation, for through the abdominal opening the surgeon had direct access to a living functional stomach. Beaumont quickly realized that here was a golden opportunity to carry out investigations into digestion in a living person, and from 1825-1833 he used Alexis St. Martin as the subject of a variety of experiments. Beaumont’s knowledge of chemistry was very limited, but he sought good advice, and quickly established the presence of free hydrochloric acid in the stomach and also the contractions of the stomach muscles. These were merely preliminary observations. He went on to show that gastric juice secretion, and thus digestion, were greatly influenced by psychic factors, that the juice was not found in the stomach in the absence of food, and that water passed rapidly out of the stomach into the duodenum. He also studied the effects on gastric secretion of various foods, including coffee, tea and alcohol.

Beaumont’s experiments ended in 1833 with the publication of his great work “Experiments and Observations of the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion.” It is one of the great works of experimental medicine and laid the foundations of the science of digestive physiology.
Beaumont left the army in 1839 and went into private practice. All accounts indicate he was good at this, and was a popular physician. He died in 1853 as a result of an accidental fall.

The William Beaumont Memorial Building

Mackinac Island
Mackinac Island State Park Commission
Lansing, Michigan
Opening hours:
May 15th – October 20th only.
Daily, 9.00 – 17.00
These times may change, so be sure to check with the park headquarters.

Regrettably, we have not been to this memorial, but what follows comes directly form the superintendent of the State Park.

The Beaumont Memorial on Mackinac Island was a gift to the park by the Michigan State Medical Society. It consists of the building, formerly the American Fur Company’s retail store, where Alexis St. Martin was accidentally shot. It has been completely restored. On the ground floor there are two rooms, the first furnished with French-Canadian furniture of the period, and the second with Beaumont’s furniture. There is also the Dean Cornwell painting of William Beaumont and Alexis St. Martin. On the second floor there is a medical history museum, which includes some of Beaumont’s instruments. Also four full scale dioramas depicting phases of the physician’s life and experiments. Finally at Fort Mackinac itself, there is a monument to Beaumont and in the Fort Museum there is a Beaumont exhibit.


New York, N.Y. is a vast metropolitan complex, one of the largest in the world. Its origins go back to Dutch colonization in 1626, when the area was called New Amsterdam. Control passed to the British in 1664 when it was renamed New York, and at the time of the revolution it became one of the principle centers in the newly founded United States. Since then it has always played a major role in the development of the country, and in recent times a few famous institutions dedicated to the study of biology and medicine have been established there, and have played important roles.

American Museum of Natural History

Central Park West at 79th Street
New York, N.Y.
Opening hours:
Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 10.00 – 16.45
Wednesday, 10.00 – 21.00
Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, 10.00 – 17.00
Small charge for admission.

The American Museum of Natural History is today one of the foremost in the world, and has played a very important role in the progress of all modern biology.

The museum was founded in 1869 for the purpose of advancing various branches of natural knowledge. It was founded a private institution and has remained so ever since, but is associated with the City University of New York and Columbia University, so that students from these universities can study at the museum. Most of the research work of the museum is not normally seen by the public, and includes such areas as animal behavior, anthropology, entomology, herpetology, ichthyology, invertebrates, mammaology, ornithology and vertebrate paleontology. Over many years the staff of the museum have played important roles in advancing our knowledge of these areas.

The displays on view for the public are extensive. All the major groups of animals, both living and in fossil form, are represented, and there are exhibits of rocks and minerals as well. The museum also carries on active educational programs in the form of lectures, field trips, etc., and publishes a wide range of journals and magazines. Perhaps above all however, is their superb library. It is principally devoted to natural history with some priceless rare books in the field, and is probably the best such library in North America. It is not open for use by the public except by permission of the librarian. However, visitors can ask permission to see it. Sometimes there are special displays of their rare books.

The American Museum of Natural History has something to offer everyone interested in the history of biology, and indeed a lot more.

New York Academy of Medicine

2 East 103rd Street
New York, N.Y.
Opening hours:
Normal business hours.
No charge for admission.

The New York Academy of Medicine was founded in 1847, for the purpose of promoting the science and art of medicine, the promotion of public health and medical education, and the maintenance of a library of medicine. It is a pleasure to record that through the years it has remained true to these founding functions, and it ha splayed a very important role in the successes of modern medicine, particularly in the United States.
Most of the work of the Academy is in the promotion of medicine and not directly visible, but this is not the case for their library which is certainly one of the best medical libraries in North America. There are over 500,000 volumes, with special collections, very rare and old medical books, as well as some important original medical manuscripts. The library can be used by qualified persons with the permission of the librarian, and visitors can request to see various aspects of it. This library is priceless and continues to play an important role in the advance of medicine.

PHILADELPHIA  (view slide show)

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is one of the most historic cities in the United States. It was founded by William Penn in 1682 as a city in which people of all races and religions might live together without persecution. Benjamin Franklin was closely associated with the city, and he was responsible for the founding there of many libraries and educational institutions. Philadelphia was a major focus of revolutionary activity in the latter part of the 18th century. It was here that the Constitution of the United States was drawn up, independence proclaimed, and Philadelphia subsequently became the first capital of the new country. From our point of view however, Philadelphia has also been a major center for the study and progress of medicine.

Pennsylvania Hospital

Eighth and Spruce Streets
Philadelphia, PA
Opening hours: Normal business hours.
This is an active hospital.

This was the nation’s first voluntary hospital.  It was founded by Dr. Thomas Bond and Benjamin Franklin in 1751.  Its purpose was solely for the relief of the sick and miserable, a fact commemorated on the inscription on the cornerstone of the Pine Building which was laid in 1755.  The Pine Building still survives and contains a wealth of medical history.  This building is still in active use.  Guided tours are available by appointment at (215) 829-3270 or buy a self guided brochure available at the welcome desk.

The original hospital was built in three sections.  The East Wing was completed in 1755 and the first patients were admitted in 1756.  Construction began on the West Wing and Center section in the spring of 1794.  The West Wing was completed in 1797 and the Center Section was completed in 1804.  The West Wing was created to care for the increased number of insane patents.  The Center section of the hospital was designed to be a buffer to shield the physically ill from the disturbing cries of the insane.  The Center section of the building was also designed to be the residence of the officers and servants for the other necessary purposes.  The first floor of the building was the Administration Center and is still used for this purpose today. Also housed on the first floor were the original apothecary and the medical library both were the first in the nation.  The first floor is adorned with Portuguese tile that is estimated to be over 150 years old.  One the second floor of the Center section is the medical library.  This houses a collection now containing over 13,000 volumes dating back to the fifteenth century.  The library includes the nation’s most complete collection of medical books published between 1750 through 1850.  The top floor of the Center building is the home of the oldest surviving operating theater in the world.  The amphitheatre served as the operating room from 1804 through 1868.  Surgeries were performed between 11am and 2pm utilizing the bright sunlight coming through the large windows near the top of the room.  Medical students and locals paid to observe these surgical procedures performed there.  It was estimated that up to 300 people might be present during any surgical operation.  The Pine Building was designed with a dry moat which still can be seen today.  The moat was used as an exercise area for the mentally ill until a separate institution was built in 1841.

Outside the Pine Building is a stature of William Penn which was presented to the hospital in 1804.  As you walk out of the Center building to the right you see the Physic Garden which was proposed but never established by the Board of Managers in 1774 to provide the physicians of the day with ingredients for medicines.  In 1976, the garden was crated as a bicentennial project of the Philadelphia Committee of the Garden Club of America.  The garden contains the plants and herbs that were used for medicines in the eighteenth century.  As you leave the front door of the Pine Building and turn to your left, on the wall of the East Wing, you will see the cornerstone which was laid by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Bond in 1755.

Pennsylvania Hospital, although over 250 years old, continues to thrive as a working hospital.  Today it is a 515-bed acute care facility that has over 21,000 inpatients and 197,000 outpatient admissions each year including 4,000 births.  Remember when you are taking the tour, that you are visiting a working hospital.

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

19 South 22nd Street
Philadelphia, PA
Opening hours:
Monday – Friday only, 10.00 – 17.00

Tucked away in a relatively quiet but historic section of Philadelphia, is the stately Georgian-styled home of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.  Founded in 1787 by Dr. Benjamin Rush, John Morgan, and twenty-two other physicians, the college is a thriving cultural and educational institution providing health education to the public, continuing education for medical and health professions, research opportunities for students and scholars and a stately and elegant meeting place for its members.

Constructed in 1908 with funding by Andrew Carnegie this handsome building houses the Mutter Museum, an extensive historical library and the Francis C. Wood Institute for the History of Medicine.  In 1858, Thomas Mutter, a retired Professor of Surgery at Jefferson Medical College, presented to the College 2000 specimens, models and drawings.  He also gave a gift of $30,000 which provided for exhibit cases and the future purchase of new specimens.  150 years later this legacy has grown to the Mutter Museum which is considered one of the top historical medical museums in the United States.

The Mutter Museum patterned after the original Hunter Museum of London occupies most of the first floor and part of the basement.  Among the noteworthy displays include plaster casts of the bodies of Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins, and a tumor from the jaw of President Grover Cleveland, a medicine chest belonging to Dr. Benjamin Rush and a collection of 139 skulls from the Viennese anatomists Joseph Hyrtl.  There are also numerous models and actual anatomical parts showing embryologic anomalies of both infants and children.  There is also a section devoted to the history of the anatomical studies involved in 19th century forensic medicine.  As you enter the museum, on your left there is an exhibit entitled Only One Man Died: Medical Adventures of the Lewis & Clark Trail.  This exhibit chronicles the 28 month journey from St. Louis to the Pacific Coast.  In this exhibit is contained various medical instruments from that time period including the Benjamin Rush medical chest.  This exhibit will close in early 2006 and will be replaced in April 2006 with a new exhibit entitled The Medical World of Benjamin Franklin.  This will be presented in conjunction with the Royal Society of Medicine.  The museum’s overall collection comprises over 12,000 instruments from every medical specialty.

In its first significant expansion in many years, the Mutter Museum increased its total exhibition space by 20% when it opened the new Gretchen Worden Gallery in July.  The Gallery is named for the late Gretchen Worden, the long time Director who put the Museum on the nation’s cultural map.  This new Gallery focuses on the importance of medical teaching aids ranging from wet and dry specimens to wax models and papier-mâché displays.

The second floor houses a superb medical library with materials dating from the med 1200’s to 1965.  Included are over 100,000 books, 150,000 medical journals and over 400 incunabula.  Admission to the library is free of charge but arrangements should be made for access to some of the collections.

Displayed on the walls of every public room are portraits of famous Philadelphia pioneers of medicine from the colonial period to the present day.

Located behind the building is the medicinal plant garden which was started in 1937.  This garden is maintained by the College of Physicians and consists of herbs used in Dr. Rush’s time such as chamomile, marigold and foxglove and some recent additions include St. John’s Wort.

General admission to the Mutter Museum is $10.00.  Discounts are available.  Children under six and college members are free.


Washington, D.C. was made the capital of the United States by an Act of Congress in 1790, and the government was transferred there from Philadelphia in 1800. It was laid out in “the grand style,” and in many ways is one of the most impressive cities in the country. Apart from government, there are fortunately many major cultural institutions and we will describe some of these which are important in the history of biology and medicine.

National Museum of Health & Medicine, Washington, DC

If you are a lover of museums, medicine and the military, this is the place for you. Nestled amongst the maze of buildings located on the campus of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Northwest Washington, DC, is the National Museum of Health and Medicine. What makes this a veritable treasure trove of historical artifacts so unique is its one of a kind collection of carefully preserved 5,000 skeletal specimens and 10,000 fluid-preserved organs collected by the military from the time of the Civil War.

In 1862 at the request of Surgeon General William Hammond, army surgeons were directed to collect and forwarded to the museum all specimens of morbid anatomy, surgical or medical, which may be regarded as valuable….that may prove to be of interest in the study of military medicine and surgery. These items are now catalogued and contained as part of the museum’s collections. At different times of the year, different objects are displayed throughout the museum; some of the more popular items are displayed at all times while others are brought out depending on which exhibit is shown.

On my last visit in the summer of 2005, the place was a buzz with hundreds of school children all enjoying their day at the museum. Some were being directed through the museum by Steven Solomon, Public Affairs Officer, while others were sitting quietly with their mouths agape learning anatomy from a museum staff member who was teaching them from a model of human brain.

Because of its enormous and unique collection of Civil War specimens, medical instruments and weapons, MEDICINE DURING THE CIVIL WAR is a permanent exhibit displayed throughout the museum. Of course, I asked to see one of its more popular exhibits there “The Scoundrel”, General Dan Sickle’s leg which has been proudly displayed there for over 100 years. On my last visit to the museum in the late 80’s, the curator mentioned that it was the most popular piece of anatomy in the museum. The other two permanent exhibits include THE EVOLUTION OF THE MICROSCOPE and HUMAN BODY HUMAN BEING which displayed preserved specimens from the major body systems and medical artifacts and instruments important in the development of modern medicine in hospitals. Among the most popular historical artifacts are those related to Abraham Lincoln, the bullet that ended his life and the probe used by Dr. J.L. Barnes to locate the bullet in Lincoln’s skull. They are on display along with life cases of his face and hands that were made soon after the primary campaign of 1860. Other interesting exhibits in the summer of 2005 included a M.A.S.H. unit from the Korean War which was set up exactly as it were in the mountains of Korea and an exhibit entitled MEDICAL DIAGNOSTIC AND TREATMENT TECHNOLOGY. Located just inside the front door on your left, this display included an iron lung, an electronic generator, a shoe fluoroscope used in the early 40’s to make sure your shoes fit comfortably and were medically matched to your feet, a dental x-ray machine and an old fluoroscope. Because the exhibits are changing at all times, please visit their website to find out what exhibits are going on when you will be in Washington. It is www.nmhm.washingtondc.museum.com

While the admission is free to this excellent facility, contributions may be offered in a box located behind the information desk in the museum’s lobby. Because this is a government facility a valid up to date picture ID is required to enter the Walter Reed Army Medical Center complex. Also because of its location in Northwest Washington, DC, the taxi ride there I found to be a little expensive and a little bit out of the way for the average tourist. Therefore be ready to wait a while for your return trip to downtown Washington.

National Museum of History and Technology
14th Street and Constitution Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C.
Opening hours: Daily, 10.00 – 17.30
No charge for admission.

This is a branch of the Smithsonian Institution, a federally-chartered corporation. It carries on a great variety of scientific investigations, and has been assigned many major responsibilities by the government. The origin of the Smithsonian is of great interest. In 1826, an Englishman named James Smithson bequeathed £ 100,000 to the United States government to found an institution in Washington for “the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men,” and the Smithsonian Institution has certainly lived up to that charge. It has become one of the great scientific institutions of the world, though its activities are by no means confined to science.

The National Museum of History and Technology is one of three adjacent museums on Constitution Avenue, the other two being the Museum of Natural History and the National Gallery of Art. What is of such significance, is that her are extensive displays in the history of biology, medicine and dentistry, and they are certainly the best in the United States. They tend to be oriented to American history in these fields, but have an international favor as well. In describing these we can do no better than list some of the superbly designed displays:

1. Early Pharmacy
2. A United States Drugstore of 1890
3. The Development of Antibiotics
4. Early Dentistry
5. Reconstruction of dental offices and equipment of 1885 and 1900
6. A variety of historical dental instruments, and dentures worn by
George Washington.
7. The Development of X-rays
8. Electricity and Medicine
9. Historical Optometry
10. The historical development of stethoscopes, ophthalmoscopes, etc.
11. History of Bacteriological Research
12. History of Microscopes
13. Early surgery
14. Surgical Milestones
15. History of Anesthesia
16. Development of Electrocardiographs
17. Rehabilitation Medicine
18. Modern Surgery

This is only a partial list, and the visitor interested in such history may spend many productive hours learning from these excellent exhibits.

The Library of Congress
10 First Street S.E.
Washington, D.C.
Opening hours: Daily, 9.00 – 18.00
There is a 45 minute tour of the library, which leaves the main entrance
rotunda, every hour on the hour, from 9.00 – 16.00 weekdays only.
No charge for admission.

This is popularly described as “The Nation’s Library,” and is today probably the largest library in the world. Its holdings cover every field of human knowledge. It administers the copyright system in the United States and is the depository of all copyright books in this country.

It was founded by an act of Congress in 1800, and its early holdings were primarily in the area of parliamentary government. During the War of 1812, the Capitol was burnt in 1814 and with it went the library. However the following year Congress purchased the private library of former President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and this formed the nucleus from which the present library has grown. Its holdings are remarkably extensive – “from Egyptian papyrus to microfilm.”

The Library of Congress in not a library for everyday use, but rather a reference library for scholars and other libraries, but there are very interesting rooms with special exhibits. A visit to this magnificent library which has played such a major role in our whole culture is a truly thrilling experience.

The National Library of Medicine
8600 Rockville Pike
Bethesda, Maryland

Before leaving Washington we just want to mention the National Library of Medicine in nearby Bethesda. Founded in 1836, it is the foremost Library of Medicine in the United States. It is with some regret that we cannot describe it from first-hand experience, as we have not been there. However, there can be no question that it is an important place for those interested in the history of medicine.


Williamsburg, Virginia was one of the original settlements of the early colonists from England, and became the first capital of Virginia. But by the early 20th century it had faded into just a small provincial town, and might have remained that way if it had not been for the farsightedness and generosity of John D. Rockefeller Jr., who has restored the town to an approximation of what it was like in colonial times during the 17th and 18th centuries. It is a remarkable piece of work, and of extreme interest. There is something of historical value for everyone at Colonial Williamsburg, including those concerned with the history of medicine.

The Apothecary Shop
Duke of Gloucester Street
Williamsburg, VA
Opening hours:
Daily, 10.00 – 17.00, but there are variations depending on the season.
There is a considerable charge for admission to the entire complex of
Colonial Williamsburg.

The Apothecary Shop is a restoration built on its original foundations as it existed from 1760-1780.

In a previous chapter (see Heidelburg, Germany) we have explained the importance of the apothecary in the development of medicine, and the drugs it employs, and here in this shop is a fine display of the “wares” of an 18th century apothecary, with a curator very willing to explain it all and demonstrate some of the techniques. The shop is divided into two parts, front and back. In the front is the Apothecary’s domain, but in an office at the back is a fine collection of 18th century medical instruments. These actually belonged to Dr. John Minson Galt (1744-1808), who practiced in Williamsburg during the latter half of the 18th century. They are rather grim, and include cases of instruments designed for removing stones, amputations of limbs, and trephining – a process of boring into the skull, which was supposed to “relieve pressure,” and this was done without any anesthetic! All in all a visit to this Apothecary Shop leaves one with the impression that modern times have some advantages!