International Museum of Surgical Science

The IMSS, sponsored by the International College of Surgeons, is a hidden gem on Chicago's lake shore 1.5 miles north of the city center. Although there is usually a very modest admission fee, the museum is free on Tuesdays. Individually guided tours are available on Saturdays at 2PM but the exhibits are so well labeled that most people take a self-guided tour. My wife and I recently spent several very enjoyable hours perusing the many rooms filled with interesting medical artifacts on all four floors.

The Museum is housed in the only historic Gold Coast mansion open to the public, and this beautifully restored building with its quaint coach portico is almost worth the trip in and of itself. It was built as a private residence by an executive of the Diamond Match Company as a gift for his daughter in 1917, and is patterned after a French chateau on the grounds of Versailles.

This elegant mansion, built in 1917, is the home of the International Museum of Surgical Science.
This elegant mansion, built in 1917, is the home of the International Museum of Surgical Science.

The museum is the brainchild of Dr. Max Thorak, who founded the International College of Surgeons. As one of the promotional brochures aptly notes, "Each exhibit is a stepping stone toward building the bridge from ancient to modern surgery, illustrating essential findings in anatomy, pathology, anesthesiology, radiology, orthopedics and other specialties." One of the first projects completed is the Hall of Immortals, where 12 larger-than-life stone statues of medical giants such as Hippocrates, Pare, Lister, Semmelweis, and Madame Curie tower over the visitor.

This is truly an international museum, with individual Halls highlighting numerous medical advancements made by surgeons from Canada, Latin America, Spain, the Netherlands, and Japan. Other exhibits include Anatomy in the Gallery, Enduring and Alleviating Pain, Milestones in Medical Imaging, Nursing: Care for a Changing World, The Science of Sight and the Opthalmic Art, Conquering Heart Disease, and an excellent display of items associated with the Polio Epidemics including an iron lung and hand-forged KAFOs. As an orthotist, I was very impressed with the quality of the custom made, anterior opening hammered aluminum TLSO from the 1900, on display in the Understanding the Spine and Spinal Surgery exhibit.


Artifacts from the Polio epidemics of the previous century are on display.
Artifacts from the Polio epidemics of the previous century are on display.

The prosthetist will be particularly interested in the special exhibit "Beyond Broken Bones: The Story of Orthopedics and Prosthetics", which features extensive displays of both internally implanted and external limb prostheses. This Hall tells the story of orthopedics, from the 17th century barber who founded the discipline [Nicholas Andry] to modern times. This display includes a number of historic upper and lower limb prostheses, from a peg leg all the way to a modern flexible socket attached to a microprocessor controlled knee and a high profile carbon fiber dynamic response foot. One of Eadweard Muybridge's historic photo series shows a young man with bilateral congenital absences at the knee joints jumping from a chair to the floor, reminding the viewer that this was the precursor to today's instrumented gait analysis. Finally, the worlds' first self-propelled wheelchair is illustrated. This mobility device was designed in 1655 by a German watchmaker who was also paraplegic.

This lightweight TLSO hammered from very thin aluminum circa 1900 can be viewed at the IMSS.
This lightweight TLSO hammered from very thin aluminum circa 1900 can be viewed at the IMSS.

One of the more unique exhibits was the Hall of Murals, a gallery lined with oil paintings depicting various aspects of the evolution of medical practice. I also particularly enjoyed the first floor hall that contains a complete 1890's era pharmacy with all the golden oak woodwork to house the various chemicals of the day. An extensive exhibit of patent medicines and their outrageous claims illustrates why the Federal Drug Administration was created and parallels today's move toward Evidence Based Practice. I was quite interested to learn that our word "heroin" comes from the "heroic medication" distilled from the poppy and sold aggressively by the German company Bayer - until they decided to switch their marketing muscle to aspirin!

Anyone with an interest in medicine and surgery will find this museum a fascinating place to browse. The museum also offers a number of special programs for students including an "interactive demonstration allows students to experience the way amputation surgeries were performed before the discovery of anesthesia and germ theory." For the prosthetist-orthotist, this museum is a special treat because you can find the answers to questions such as:

  1. Who developed the first non-locking prosthetic knee joint in 1696?
  2. When was the worlds' first body-powered upper limb prosthesis invented?

Much more extensive information is available on the web at the International Museum of Surgical Science website and a virtual tour on CD can be purchased from their gift shop here.



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