I stand transfixed for several minutes by a pair of large fishbowls, filled to the brim with multi-hued flinty stones of variable sizes. These fishbowls resemble larger version of centerpieces I have seen on wedding reception tables, sans ribbonery and place cards. Next to the jars, cinched in place by silver calipers, stands a large rock formation the length of my handspan, with whorls and texture like a planetary surface. All of these stones have been gathered from various locations and regions in the world. The common thread amongst these stones is their manufacture, not by wind or machine, but by the human body. The stones in the jars are calculi (aggregations of mineral deposits), formed and incubated in various organs; the thing suspended in calipers is actually a gallstone. I haven’t the faintest clue how large a standard human gallbladder is, but this thing had to have been a terrible burden for its creator.
When I had asked for places to visit in Chicago, most people referred me to the Art Institute – a fabulous place and a must-see for any tourist of culture. I particularly enjoy the Thorne Miniature Rooms (although these scenes don’t depict homicides, they are still quite historically fascinating). It is also a place I have been to on numerous prior visits, along with the big shiny bean, Wrigley Field, etc. Instead of retreading familiar territory, this time I made a special pilgrimage to the International Museum of Surgical Science.
The museum is nestled between expensive lake-ward facing condos in the Gold Coast area of Chicago. Inside the grand architectural façade lurks a medical history fraught with breakthroughs and horrors. Around the corner from the Costco-sized containers of gallstones, there is a tranquil marble hallway lined with statues of important luminaries in the surgical field. Joseph Lister, pioneer of antiseptic surgery. Louis Pasteur, creator of the germ theory of disease. Marie Curie also stands there, acknowledged for her contribution to X-ray technology and radiation therapy (I can only assume her statue glows at night).
The award for saddest figure belongs to Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, who practiced during the mid-1800s before hygiene became standard procedure in the medical field. Poor, persnickety neat-freak Ignaz was chided by his colleagues for deigning to change the linens in between patients (and thereby driving up laundry costs). Ignaz had also made the bold claim that perhaps the alarming number of women dying in childbirth at this hospital had something to do with the fact that medical students were performing deliveries immediately after dissecting cadavers. Eventually the hospital’s authorities cottoned on to this connection and started wiping all surfaces with calcium chloride in between patients, resulting in a drastic improvement in after-procedure survival rates and general wellness. But the psychic damage inflicted by his colleagues, still jeering about his wacky ideas, proved to be too much for Ignaz. He was committed to a mental asylum, whereupon he was beaten by guards, and – in a completely awful, “you can’t make this shit up” twist of irony – contracted sepsis as a result of the beating and died, in agony.
The museum features an eclectic collection of various devices of medical antiquity. One of my favorite pieces is an early prototype of a stethoscope, essentially a cylinder with a few moving parts. The inventor had wanted to prevent the cylinder from rolling off the examination table, and also be stylish, so he fashioned it to resemble a fur-lined top hat. There is also a dizzying array of bone-saws and surgical tool kits, some still visibly flecked with aged bloodstains. In one room there is a corner of syringes for itinerant surgeons (much like their dentist contemporaries, some surgeons took their acts on the road). Some of the spinal needles span longer than a standard letter opener.
In another corner, next to trepanation implements, there is an instrument called a “scarificator,” which must already be the name of a death metal band or else I am hereby claiming dibs. The scarificator was used primarily for blood-letting, Western medicine’s long-time answer to pretty much any ailment under the sun, including anemia. Also, there is a room dedicated to stapling instruments, featuring cute Japanese cartoons of stomachs being sliced in half and reattached through the magic of surgical staple guns.
Though the surgical museum’s painting exhibits don’t exactly rival the Monets and the Renoirs at the other famous Chicago museum, these too provide intriguing glimpses into the past. Scenes depict surgeons at work, wearing their finest cloaks and ruffs, sawing holes into people’s stomachs, pulling out entrails and retrieving babies. One painting of an early Caesarian section shows a doctor covering the nude mother’s mouth with a rag, probably soaked in ether. Another doctor is pulling the squalling newborn out of a hole in her side while the other gentlemen, dressed in suits, peer in curiously. Presumably none of these finely dressed gentlemen have bothered to wash their hands. On every level, from the perspective of the mother, this scene is a horrorshow.
But the very best and also worst part of the museum’s collection is located in yet another display case for calculi formed inside human organs. Above the display case, there are cross-sectional images of kidneys and gallbladders filled completely with stones, looking like bags filled with really gross dice. Inside the display case are specimens: one large single gallstone, recovered intact from the body; one bowl filled with many smaller gallstones, with a placard indicating that these were all removed from the same gallbladder.
A large tome lays open to pages describing how to treat a patient afflicted with stones. Under a line drawing of what appears to be a narrow soup tureen ladle, the text instructs to thrust the spoony part “by the wound into the bladder, and therewith you shall gather and take out what gravel soever [sic], clotted blood and the like refuse as shall be there.”
But doctor of yore, what if this bladder stone is just too darned big to scoop out through the patient’s urethra? If said stone is so big that “it may not be plucked forth without great and fearful rending of the bladder, as it will be better to take hold thereof with this Crows bill, and so break it into pieces.” (Crows bill image included below, for those brave enough to venture into the image gallery.)
But the piece de resistance, the Hope Diamond of human calculi, has never been pierced by the teeth of a Crows bill. Next to it, a label simply reads: “Large bladderstone.” No hint as to where (or who) it had come from. It is roughly the size of a small canteloupe – and come to think of it, also rather resembles a cantelope in appearance. From a distance, the surface looks perfectly smooth; upon closer examination, the surface is traced with intricate patterned grooves and tessellations. It is almost beautiful.
Again, I lingered spell-bound for a long time in front of this display case, obsessing about the origins of this piece. Who was this person who had borne fruit to such a frightful thing? The stone is so perfectly formed that I would guess it must have been extricated post-mortem. And probably the cause of death had to have had something to do with the presence of such an enormous bladderstone. Yet the owner also had to have lived long enough to incubate and nurture the stone to its present size. How did it feel, walking around with this thing? How could they pee? How did things get so unbelievably, catastrophically bad? Did they just not drink enough water? How does this sort of thing happen? Could this happen to me? Could there be such a mass, incubating within one of my organs, slowly accreting materia over time without my being the wiser, until one day … ?
Eventually the spell broke and I tore away, heading straight to the drinking fountain to get some water. In general, strolling through these rooms put me in good cheer as much as it fascinated and horrified. While examining the implements used to perform procedures we now take for granted, I have never been happier to be alive in the present day. Probably those who are alive even fifty years from now will be completely appalled at the idea of using scalpels during surgery, instead of lasers or The Force or whatever new technology we are using in the future.
In the meantime, though, I will be drinking plenty of water. As should you, lest your body starts creating art without you knowing.
(Photo credit to my friend Gideon VanRiette, who accompanied me on this visit and who is also making sure to drink plenty of water.)
Kim Le is a writer and shiftless gadabout who hails from the distant wheat fields of Kansas. Obsessions include sustainability, yurts and extreme DIY. Also, she makes sculptures out of food, mostly potatoes. She never updates her blog at http://badmetaphor.net.