Budapest: The Semmelweiss Museum

I recently had to switch two of my working days around, which created a surprise five day weekend (without having to take time off!), and to make the most of it, I decided to try to book a trip. All the last minute deals appeared to be for places like Brussels and Frankfurt (nothing against either place, but I’ve already been to Brussels a few times, and Frankfurt seems like more of a business destination), so when I saw a deal for three nights in Budapest, I scooped it up. I had actually been to Budapest once before, about ten years ago, but that trip was just a series of misfortunes that meant I didn’t end up seeing very much, so I was happy to go back and explore more in depth.
  
Actually, I wanted to go to Budapest for three main reasons: 1) To eat lots of kurtoskalacs, aka chimney cake, which I dearly love, but resent being asked to pay a fiver for at Christmas markets in the UK; 2) Visit the Columbo statue, because I have been weirdly into Columbo the last few months (probably because it’s on pretty much all day Sunday, and Sunday tends to be my chilling and TV watching day, so I’ve caught a lot simply because there was nothing else on, and got hooked); and 3) Visit the Semmelweiss Museum. This post will of course be about the last of those three ambitions, though you’ll hear more about the other two in a later post.
  
I’ve always felt bad for Ignaz Semmelweiss – any way you look at it, the man got a raw deal. He accidentally stumbled onto germ theory when he noticed that a colleague who died from sepsis after cutting himself during a dissection had the same symptoms as the women who died from puerperal fever (without directly understanding why – he thought “cadaverous material” was the problem, and I mean, it was, but not for the reasons he thought), which allowed him to dramatically slash the mortality rate in his maternity ward (by 90%, though the hospital he worked at had two maternity wards: one for training doctors and one for training midwives, and the midwives’ ward had much lower mortality rates all along, because midwives didn’t dissect cadavers) when he started forcing his medical students to wash their hands in chlorinated water. He then published his findings, and instead of the medical community viewing them as revolutionary or at least intriguing, they instead accused him of fabricating results (Pasteur and Lister eventually confirmed his findings, but too late to have done Semmelweiss any good).  Semmelweiss was eventually committed to an insane asylum due to what may have been early onset dementia or depression, though the antagonism of his fellow doctors probably didn’t help his mental state, and he died only a fortnight after being committed as a result of being beaten by the guards (it actually is quite a tragic story). Therefore, I was excited to see his museum, hoping he would finally get the more exalted treatment he deserved (and of course, I was hoping to see some grisly medical stuff too).
  
Unfortunately, I would wind up somewhat disappointed on both counts. We managed to find the museum without too much trouble (it’s on the Buda side of the river, near a tram stop) located on the first floor of a building looking out on a rather lovely courtyard. Admission is 1000 HUF (just under £3), plus an extra 600 forints for a photo pass, which I always find a bit ridiculous in this day and age, but I suppose they have to make money somehow. I was a little worried that nothing would be in English, but most (probably 80%) of the signs had an English translation, although they did tend to be more concise than the Hungarian version.
  
The first room held the bulk of the grisly stuff, as it were (not much, and not that grisly). There was a re-creation of a shrunken head made from goatskin, a mummified foot or two, and a couple of skulls. There were also some small grotesques, and that rather adorable little anatomical model, but most of it was just medical instruments – a theme that would continue throughout the museum.
  
The second room held a re-creation of Semmelweiss’s parlour, complete with his original furniture and rug, and some of his original books (and apparently some books given to the Hungarian prime minister by George Bush Sr. during his presidency, though they quite clearly weren’t Semmelweiss’s books, since Osler’s Modern Medicine wasn’t published until 1892 (and those copies appear to be an even later edition), and Semmelweiss died in 1865). If I understood the signs correctly (some of them were a little confusing), Semmelweiss lived in this building at one point in time, and I wish more of his house had been preserved. There was also a re-creation of an old pharmacy that appeared to have some staff in white coats working in it, but it was roped off whilst we were there so I’m not sure if they do some sort of living history interaction with visitors or not (though if it was in Hungarian, it wouldn’t have done us much good in the first place).
  
The third room (I was pleased to see there even was a third room, because the museum looked like it was only two rooms from the entrance) had more cool things (and some fairly inexplicable ones like this opium pillow (he has an actual butt hole, and I don’t know why)) like some incredibly detailed wax models of organs (they were beautiful, in a kind of disgusting way, but I had read before visiting that the museum was meant to have an excellent wax anatomical model collection, which had me picturing Anatomical Venuses (you know, those comely women who just happen to have all their guts exposed) rather than organs by themselves).
  
The final gallery (more of a long hallway) was my least favourite, as much of it wasn’t in English, and it was largely just medical instruments and other random bits and bobs. I was disappointed how barely any of the museum actually seemed to be about Semmelweiss – unless I missed something that was only in Hungarian, there was only his room, and one small case of his possessions (including a copy of his skull, which is admittedly cool, though as you can see, the terse label provided no reason why it was there), and that was it. There was barely even any discussion of his accomplishments, so if you didn’t know about what he had achieved before going in to the museum, you sure wouldn’t coming out either.
  
We were headed out the door when we saw a poster that mentioned a temporary exhibition on vaccines, which appeared to be in a room on the ground floor. When we tried to go in, a man came out and stopped us, so we showed him our tickets, which led to a heated discussion in Hungarian between him and another woman who worked there about whether or not we had the right to see the exhibition (honestly, we didn’t care that much, we just didn’t think it would be an issue in the first place, as it didn’t mention anywhere that it cost extra). They eventually decided we could go in, which I was grateful for because that’s where the toilets were, but I don’t know what the official policy is (I don’t think even they know what the official policy is, frankly) so if you visit the museum, you may not be able to do the same.  You wouldn’t be missing much anyway. It felt like a travelling exhibition that had been translated into Hungarian, and contained fairly basic information about Jenner, Salk, Koch, and others that anyone with an interest in the history of medicine would already know about, and no major artefacts of note other than some rad old posters urging Hungarians to be vaccinated (the maternity chair shown below is from the permanent collections). We kind of rushed through because we felt like we were creating a disturbance by even being there.
  
So sadly, the Semmelweiss Museum will not be going on my list of must-see medical museums, but I’m glad we checked it out whilst we were there so at least now I know (I realise that these photos are making it look like they had lots of amazing stuff there, but that is because I’m just showing you the highlights, and not the rows and rows of scalpels and surgical scissors and things. Endless medical instruments may be of interest if you’re actually a doctor or surgeon, but I want stuff in jars)! I think it is worth seeing if you’re already in Budapest and like medical history, but it’s certainly not a destination museum. It probably is better if you just think of it as a general medical museum, because it is the lack of information about Semmelweiss in a museum bearing his name that really disappoints. He deserves better, and I really wish they would have provided some more biographical information, at least about his medical career (actually, the whole museum needed more information – the labels were not descriptive at all, and were sometimes just downright confusing!). 3/5.

5 comments

  1. We went there but it was just somewhere we happened to be passing, and not a major interest like yours, so we didn’t have any expectations and therefore weren’t disappointed! I hope you enjoyed Budapest overall.

    1. I thought you went there, because I’m pretty sure reading your post was how I found out about it (I think I even commented about how I wanted to go at the time), but I didn’t see it on your blog when I went to look, so I didn’t say anything in case I was wrong! Glad to know it was your blog after all! I did enjoy Budapest overall, but I wasn’t terribly impressed with the museums, as you’ll see over the next few posts.

  2. A Columbo statue?! I’m a fan too, so I can’t wait to hear more about this.
    Jeez, poor Semmelweiss … I wasn’t familiar with his story before this and I’m belatedly sorry that he had such a crummy end.
    That really is an adorable anatomical model. Also, I’m quite taken with the sad, little head in the photo next to it. It looks both surprised and disappointed it has to hang out in that cube with just a couple of feet.
    I love a good old pharmacy recreation and that one is particularly lovely. Too bad it was roped off.
    It’s going to sound pervy but I’m so glad you mentioned that opium guy had a butthole. It’d have bothered me not to know – but what the heck would it be for?

    1. You’re right. That head has the expression of someone who has been forced to smell two disgusting mummified feet for an extended length of time, and is becoming sadly resigned to it. Thank you for pointing him out, because I didn’t fully grasp his plight, and now I pity him too.
      I do not know why he had a butthole. I initially thought it was somehow an opium pipe, and maybe the smoke blew out of the butthole, which would have been hilarious (probably especially so if you were high), but the label said it was a pillow, which doesn’t make a lot of sense because it was ceramic or something, and that would not be comfortable (even if you were pretty out of it). But I really want it to be some kind of elaborate bong with butt smoke, so let’s go with that.

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