International Museum of Surgical Science – Chicago, Illinois - Atlas Obscura

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International Museum of Surgical Science

A monument to the art of slicing people open. 


Surgery has a sordid past. This macabre and information-packed museum is a monument to its evolution.

Through the 16th century, barbers also served the role of surgeon, wielding the amputation saw. Before antiseptics, many patients perished at the hands of their doctor. In modern times, surgery remains a scary, but illustrious, discipline. 

Operated by the International College of Surgeons, the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago reveals the long, complicated history of this curious field. In 1935, Dr. Max Thorek founded the International College of Surgeons in Geneva to promote exchange between surgeons. In 1954, he founded the museum in Chicago (his childhood home). The museum also was a hall of fame for doctors and tool to educate the public about advancements in the field.

Built in 1917 as a private home, the building in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood was styled on Le Petit Trianon, a chateau on the grounds of Versailles. With Italian marble and a gilded grand staircase, the home is an exhibition in itself. (The heart valves are cooler than the molding, though.)

The museum’s exhibits address the professional and cultural aspects of medicine, from plastic surgery and uniforms to apothecaries and quack medicine. Thousands of objects—from acupuncture needles to X-ray machines—are on display, and the walls are lined with portraits of influential medical figures. A handsome library contains many early, rare books, and the trove of manuscripts includes letters and journals from such notables as Florence Nightingale and Thomas Guy. There’s also a gallery devoted to contemporary artistic riffs on medical themes; there, you might find sculptures made from bones or machine parts. In the gift shop, you can find everything from a model of the jaw to a giant microbe plush toy.

Obscura Day location: April 9, 2011.

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