Highlights From the Warren Anatomical Museum

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

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


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