Cleveland, OH: The Dittrick Museum of Medical History

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I can’t believe I waited this long to visit the Dittrick Museum (or this long to post about it!  I went here in September, and I’m already back in NE Ohio again for the holidays!).  I mean, I lived in Cleveland for the first 23 years of my life, I love medical history, I spent a fair amount of time hanging around the other museums in University Circle, and I almost went to school at Case Western Reserve University (twice!  I was accepted both as an undergrad, and into their History of STEM Ph.D programme, but stupidly turned down both), so there is absolutely no reason I shouldn’t have been there before.  But I guess all that doesn’t matter, now that I’ve finally remedied the situation.

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The Dittrick Museum is located inside the Allen Memorial Medical Library on Case’s campus; I recommend parking in the University Hospital visitor’s garage a short distance away, because they offer free parking for the first two hours (more than enough time to see the museum) and the metered spots on Euclid Road are usually all full.  Once you find your way inside the building, it’s a little confusing, because the main staircase takes you up to the library on the second floor, with no apparent way to get up to the third floor.  So you need to take the shaky, slightly unsafe looking lift on the far left side of the ground floor up to the 3rd floor, as directed in the lift.  (We did find a staircase once we got up there that led to the toilets, but I’m not sure how you accessed it from the ground floor.  I think it went straight down to the basement.)  The museum is free, and though university professors have their offices in the hallways all around the museum, no one is actually working at it, so you can look around without anyone breathing down your neck, which is nice.

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The museum is actually larger than I expected, with a number of different galleries/areas.  The centrepiece of the collection is undoubtedly the museum of contraception, of which more later, but they also have a number of exhibits about local and general medical history.  There was also a temporary exhibition, which was about childbirth (to tie in with the whole contraception/women’s health thing), which includes some fine (albeit a bit full-on) anatomical models.  I have to say, some of the childbirth implements there, especially the historical dilators (although the display informed me that they still use them in modern medicine; they’re just made from softer materials) made me very glad that I live in an age where the option not to have children exists.

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Case Western has a very well-renowned medical school, and many fairly prominent doctors have trained in the Cleveland area.  One of the most famous was George Washington Crile, a surgeon who performed the first operation using a direct blood transfusion, and was one of the founders of the Cleveland Clinic. (Cleveland used to also be home to Crile Military Hospital, as I found out from one of my grandpa’s letters.  However, Crile didn’t actually work there as it opened a year after he died, it was just named after him.)  There’s a wax model of his hand in here, perhaps to show the fine touch that made him a gifted surgeon.  A more notorious doctor who trained in Cleveland was the creepy Dr. Crippen, of alleged wife-murdering fame.  Even though his eyes scare the crap out of me, I still think that’s pretty cool.

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The museum discussed a variety of medical topics like anaesthesia, dentistry, and polio (complete with an infant sized iron lung), but with a special Northeast Ohio focus that as a former Clevelander, I found most interesting.

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The Museum of Contraception was located in the back section of the main room, and this too was pretty damned interesting.  Ohio is generally nowadays more known for trying to restrict women’s reproductive rights, so it was nice to come to this bastion of common sense and freedom of choice.  The collection was started by Percy Skuy, former president of Ortho Pharmeceutical (appropriately enough, since they make Ortho-Tri-Cyclen and other birth control pills), and has received so many donations that it’s doubled in size since its arrival in the museum, to include over 1100 objects.

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It contains information on birth control throughout history (some of the early attempts being not only ineffective, but distinctly unpleasant, shades of the childbirth section again), the attempts of campaigners to educate women on effective methods of contraception, and how they faced extreme opposition, especially from the horrible shit-stain of a man, Anthony Comstock, who was responsible for the ridiculous Comstock Law that allowed distributors of anything deemed “lewd” (birth control among them) to be successfully prosecuted.  Seriously, he was the worst, and someone eventually clubbed him over the head, but it wasn’t enough to kill him (more’s the pity).

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This gallery also includes some delightful contraception related art, like a display of IUDs (or maybe that was just a normal display, but it looked cool), a pearl ship given to Margaret Sanger by the Japanese people in thanks for her efforts to make birth control available to all, and an American flag containing stars made out of birth control pills, which is also available as a free postcard from a table in the middle of the museum.

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There’s a little balcony area up some stairs at the side of the museum, containing a collection of medical instruments.  While not quite as interesting as the contraception stuff, I did enjoy looking at the range of early stethoscopes, tongue depressors, and other instruments.

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But that wasn’t all!  In addition to a small room at the back currently (well, at the time of my visit) housing a collection of anatomical drawings, there were also cases lining the walls on the outside of the museum, and these contained some of the most fascinating and hilarious artefacts of the whole collection.  Part of the display was about how you would have been treated if you’d been sick in various eras in history, and obviously the historical treatments weren’t pleasant (that enema plate though! If I owned it, and if I was the type to host dinner parties, I would so serve people something chocolately off of it, just to be gross.  Maybe like a warm chocolate fondant, or a brownie pudding.  Mmmmm).

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But there was also a case on forensics, and displays on the Cleveland smallpox epidemic of 1902, which was not something I knew much about, and was definitely keen to read up on, what with my love of infectious disease and all.  Cleveland also had a diphtheria problem, and there was information on that too.  Undoubtedly one of my favourite objects, just for nostalgia’s sake, was Juno the Transparent Woman, pictured at the start of the post.  Apparently she was built in Germany in the 1940s, and has resided in Cleveland since 1950, but I remember her still being a big deal when I was a kid in the ’80s and early ’90s (at least to me).  She used to live at the Cleveland Health Museum, which was my favourite museum in my youth, and perhaps where I got my love of medical history (they had fetuses in jars, a giant tooth you could climb through, and put on a special Where’s Waldo event one year that was really fun), where she stood in a darkened room, and told visitors all about her internal organs, lighting up each one as she talked about it.  The Health Museum eventually got pretty lame, due to lack of attendance I guess, and closed in 2006, so Juno was moved here, and I was glad to see her.

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There’s also a small display of venereal disease posters on the ground floor, which I only noticed because a torrential downpour had started when we were in the museum, and we were waiting for it to die down.  Overall, the museum was much better than I had anticipated, and made me kind of angry at myself for not doing that Ph.D, as I likely would have had the opportunity to do some work on it (but then I’d still be living in Clevo, so perhaps it’s for the best).  There were a surprising number of cool artefacts, a tonne of signage, and the museum of contraception was very neat indeed.  Cleveland really doesn’t have that many free museums, other than the Art Museum, so I’m extremely glad this exists, and wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone visiting Cleveland with any interest in medicine.  I’m just ashamed it took me so long to follow my own advice.  4/5.  And if you’re in the area, you’re also very near to Little Italy (Get the gnocchi al burro at Trattoria), and Lake View Cemetery, and are only a hop, skip, and a jump (though it admittedly involves a drive down the long and horrible Mayfield Road) from East Coast Custard (best frozen custard in NE Ohio, possibly the world).

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7 comments

  1. Wonderful piece! So much great stuff in here. Calling Comstock a “shit-stain of a man” warmed my heart and I think Condom-Man’s slogan “Don’t be shame be game” needs to be revived.

    1. Thanks! For some reason (because I’m still basically 12 inside), most of my default insults seem to be feces or butt orientated, like ass-wipe and ass-hat (Comstock is also those things. Weirdly, I just read a book partially about Evelyn Nesbit and Stanford White, where Comstock rears his stupid head yet again to help out a rich sadistic murderer. I can’t escape him!).

      1. Ha! I’m the same way, though I think my insults might be too rude to type here. I know my boyfriend looks appalled whenever I utter them 🙂 Damn that Comstock – O’ to have been there for the clubbing …

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