Highlights From the Warren Anatomical Museum

The collections inside this museum hold intriguing objects that tell the story of 19th century American medicine

Surgical Kit
An 1868 surgery kit, part of Harvard's Warren Anatomical Museum.

Mounted anatomical preparation by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., 1862

Mounted anatomical preparation by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., 1862
(Warren Anatomical Museum)

Founded in 1847 from John Collins Warren's personal collection of anatomical preparations (and $5,000 of railroad stock), the Warren Anatomical Museum, a part of the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, explores the history and science of American medicine. It was founded, according to Dominic Hall, the museum's curator, for the “very specific reason to teach anatomy to incoming students.” Unlike gift programs that exist today, in which people agree to donate their bodies for study, “those mechanisms didn't exist in mid-19th century America, so human remains were very valuable,” says Hall. The Warren filled that gap.

Once gift programs began to develop in the mid-20th century, the museum no longer had the same utility and the medical school began the process of turning the focus toward the history of medicine, culminating with the final transfer of authority to the Center for the History of Medicine in 2000. In spite of this change, Hall insists that the museum is “still a tool for education and teaching, and discussing health and medicine.”

In the mid-19th century, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., the father of the famed Supreme Court Justice, taught at the school and even served as its dean. This 1862 anatomical preparation of six muscles radiating from the second cervical vertebra was indicative of how medicine was taught at the time, and is a classic example of the types of objects found at the Warren today.

Glass microscope slide, prepared by Holmes, 1888 (10x magnification)

Glass microscope slide, prepared by Holmes, 1888. 10x magnification
(Warren Anatomical Museum)

After studying in Paris and London, Holmes introduced the teaching of microscopy to the Harvard Medical School. Some of the microscopes he brought from Europe are in the collection, as are glass slides like the one above that shows the sweat glands of human skin.

Phrenology cast of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1810

Phrenology cast of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1810
(Warren Anatomical Museum)

The above life mask was from the collection of Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, M.D., one of the last purveyors of phrenology, the study of the skull based on the belief that certain physical characteristics contribute to intelligence, success or even criminality. Spurzheim made plaster casts of known individuals, including poet and philosopher Samuel T. Coleridge, for study and teaching. While lecturing on phrenology in Boston in 1832, Spurzheim died of typhoid and the Boston Phrenological Society inherited his 300-cast collection, which was later purchased by Warren and donated to the museum in 1847.

Demonstration and surgery kit, 1868

Demonstration and surgery kit, 1868
(Warren Anatomical Museum)

Richard Hodges was an anatomist with the Harvard Medical School when he was given this 40-piece surgery kit as a gift in 1868. Hodges was best known for his preparations and his stint as a visiting surgeon at the Massachusetts General Hospital from 1863-1886. This gift came to Hodges at a crucial turning point in medicine, as Louis Pasteur’s germ theories became more accepted and sterilization of surgical tools widespread. Hodges could never use this kit, then, because the ivory handles would not have held up to the antiseptic techniques used at the time.

Brass carbolic acid atomizer for antiseptic surgery, mid-to-late 19th century

Brass carbolic acid atomizer for antiseptic surgery, mid-to-late 19th century
(Warren Anatomical Museum)

Made by the Matthews Brothers of London, this device is another relic from the early days of sterilization. Invented by English scientist Joseph Lister (for whom Listerine is named), the carbolic acid atomizer was used to sterilize surgical equipment. Lister found that this technique dramatically reduced the chances of infection.

Wooden model of Aké

Wooden model of Ake
(Warren Anatomical Museum)
A Chinese boy with a partially-formed parasitic twin protruding from his stomach (or sternum), Aké was examined by Philadelphia physician John Kearsley Mitchell in 1821. Mitchell published his findings in a medical journal, and Aké became somewhat of a medical celebrity at the time. Models of Aké, whether they were wood or ceramic, were used at other medical schools around the world to teach about parasitic twins. A British surgeon studied him from Hong Kong, models were sent to London’s Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, and at least two models came to Boston – one went to the Boston Society for Medical Improvement and the other was acquired by John Collins Warren.

Pelvis, right femur, and dislocated left femur

Pelvis, right femur, and dislocated left femur
(Warren Anatomical Museum)
In one of the earliest medical malpractice cases in American history, Maine resident Charles Lowell dislocated his hip when thrown from his horse in 1821 and later sued his doctors. After complaining of pain in his left hip, Lowell went to see Dr. John Faxon and Dr. Micajah Hawkes, who manipulated his leg back into place and told Lowell to rest for a month.

Once that time passed, they noticed that his hip was dislocated. According to the Warren Museum’s records, “Lowell’s left leg stood out from his body and his foot was everted.” Told by Hawkes that there was no way to fix his hip, Lowell “erupted in anger and swore vengeance on the physicians who had ruined him.”

Lowell traveled to Boston to see Dr. John Collins Warren, a well-known surgeon at the time, but he and his colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital were unsuccessful in repairing his leg. Lowell filed a lawsuit against Faxon and Hawkes in Maine three times without resolution, with the court concluding that because there was no medical consensus on the proper treatment, the two doctors had been “professional and competent.” It is only after Lowell died that the correct diagnosis was made.

Five of a series of ten plaster hand cast created by brain surgery pioneer Harvey Cushing of his surgical peers, 1920s

Five of a series of ten plaster hand cast created by brain surgery pioneer Harvey Cushing of his surgical peers, 1920s
(Warren Anatomical Museum)
Dr. Harvey Cushing, a Harvard Medical School teacher and chief of surgery at Boston’s Brigham Hospital in the 1920s, is considered the “father of neurosurgery.” When other surgeons, his peers, would come to Boston, he sent them to Caproni Casts to have their hands cast in plaster, all of their right (dominant hands). He would keep one and give one to the physician. It is a peculiar preoccupation, considering that Cushing was a brain surgeon, but Hall speculates that maybe Cushing saw something in the “hand of the great surgeon.”

The above casts are of Dr. George W. Crile, founder of the Cleveland Clinic, Italian physician Dr. Vittorio Putti, Italian surgeon Raggaele Bastianelli, and brothers W.J. and C.H. Mayo, the founders of the Mayo Clinic.

Half-life size plaster models of "Norma" (circa 1945) and "Norman," (circa 1950) designed by Robert Latou Dickinson, M.D. and modeled in plaster by Abram Belskie

Half-life size plaster models of Norma and Norman
(Warren Anatomical Museum)
A prominent obstetrician and gynecologist, Robert Latou Dickinson graduated first in his class from Long Island College Hospital in 1881 and ran a successful OB/GYN practice in Brooklyn before elected president of the American Gynecological Society in 1920. In his self-described “second career,” Dickinson researched and investigated sexual anatomy and contraception, recording detailed descriptions of female anatomy for educational use.

Out of this research, Dickinson oversaw the production of 24 life-sized plaster casts depicting conception, fetal growth, and birth for the 1940 World’s Fair in Queens. A few years later, he designed “Norma” and “Norman” with help from sculptor Abram Belskie. They are the product of measurements of over 15,000 women and a like number of men.

Dickinson donated the sculptures to the Cleveland Health Museum, which after its 2007 merge with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, donated the models in turn to Harvard’s Center for the History of Medicine.