Period Room in Dittrick Museum

The People Behind (and in) the Museum

It’s #MuseumWeek, where museums around the world take to Twitter in a behind-the-scenes look at collections! Today’s theme is people. Follow us here on the blog, on Twitter and on Instagram all week to keep up with each event! #peopleMW

Skull Specimen
A toothless male skull featured in a case of 19th century surgical instruments. Gift of Charles A. Muncaster, 1968.

Although the Dittrick Museum’s collections primarily focus on medical tools and  artifacts, a close look around the galleries reveals a few human specimens ever ready to greet visitors with perpetual (and sometimes toothless) smiles. Like the surgical sets and pharmaceuticals they’re featured next to, these specimens were also tools — tools used to teach students about the human body.

Dissection Dittrick
Class Portrait from Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine, 1880-1930

Our collections include many historic images of medical students engaged in dissection, often with each trainee’s name inscribed on the photo. Meanwhile, the identities of the cadavers, like our featured human specimens, remain unknown. Little information is available to answer questions such as: Who were these people? Why did they become objects of anatomical study?

For example, the young male skeleton featured in our period doctor’s office came from Dr. Charles A. Muncaster, a graduate of the Western Reserve School of Medicine, class of 1919. He had acquired the specimen during his studies in 1915, a time when an articulated skeleton sold for $45 to $75. Advertisements for osteological specimens offered no details about the source of their materials, only the quality of the articulation.

1915 Osteological Speciments.jpg
Osteological Preparations from Halsam & Co. Catalog  (1915).

In 1968, besides the two human specimens shown above, Muncaster donated his complete obstetrical bag, providing a snap-shot of early 20th century physician-assisted childbirth.  Like Dr. Muncaster, the museum’s collections have been greatly enriched by generous patrons’ donations of their professional tools. The artifacts tell not only the stories of individual practitioners, but also of patients, education and historical understandings of health and the body.

Muncaster OB Bag
Obstetrical Bag and Artifacts, c. 1920. Gift of Charles A. Muncaster, 1968.

Published by

Catherine C. Osborn

I am a PhD student in Medical Anthropology at Case Western Reserve University, the Editorial Associate at Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, as well as a Research Assistant at the Dittrick Medical History Center. My research focuses on interpretations of illness and use of medical technologies both cross-culturally and historically. I believe that it is only through multidisciplinary study that health and the human approaches to managing it can be truly understood.

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