The Dittrick Museum Presents: Lindsey Fitzharris and “Medicine’s Dark Secrets”

Dissection book cover Imagine, if you will, a low stone slab. Upon it, dimly lit and un-preserved, is a three-day-old corpse going slowing rancid in warm the summer night. This, young surgeon, is your textbook. If you are lucky. For many a medical student, the remains were less fresh, less available (and occasionally less human) than the one I have described. In the 16th century, Andreas Vesalius–the father of anatomy–had to steal half-rotten bodies from the gibbet after hanging. Not what you expect, perhaps, of the profession that has since risen to be one of the most well-respected and well-paid in medicine; long years were spent in the dark before surgeons (and surgery) entered the light. What happened in this shadowy period is the subject of myth, mystery, mayhem and history–and all of it is rendered in fascinating detail by a new documentary project: Medicine’s Dark Secrets, brought to you by the indefatigable Chirurgeon’s Apprentice: Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. You will remember Lindsey from an early interview with the Dose; she is a medical historian who completed her doctorate at Oxford University with a specialty in the history of seventeenth-century alchemical pharmacopeia.

Her interests are broad and boundary-crossing–and her work renders medical history and medical artifacts accessible to an equally broad audience. She was recently interviewed by Christian Josi of the Huffington Post about her project goals and her role as a “Deathxpert” (a happy company of scholars, if I may say so!) Dr. Fitzharris has supplied her followers with so much food for thought–from Victorian anti-masturbation devices to nose-less sufferers of syphilis (a love story) to the vagaries of searching dead bodies. Along the way, she illuminates the strange and sometimes terrifying world of the surgeon-in-training (and the patient-in-waiting!) I have been following the blog for a long while, and I am never disappointed… In fact, the only thing missing was a way to bring her wonderful story-telling to life on screen. Well, not anymore! Dr. Fitzharris is now working on a documentary film, Medicine’s Dark Secrets, and we at the Dittrick are pleased to present a preview–presenting by the Chirurgeon’s Apprentice herself!

Thursday, October 31st, 2013 at 6:00 pm
Lindsey Fitzharris presents Medicine’s Dark Secrets

FitzharrisThis Halloween we will host Lindsey Fitzharris, who will discuss her forthcoming documentary film, Medicine’s Dark Secrets.  Lindsey has a Ph.D in the History of Medicine from Oxford University, and has spent the past few years in London medical museums, especially St. Bart’s, researching the pathological specimen collections.  In the course of this research she became especially intrigued with the question, “whose remains became a specimen?”  This led to an exploration of the life and demise of the persons whose remains survive in these collections, and more specifically, what led them to becoming an object of study in a jar of preserving fluid?  Unraveling this sad and indisputably peculiar fate takes Fitzharris’s investigation on a curious, unusual path leading to a more full understanding of the medical past, warts and all. The event will be held in the Ford Auditorium (reception to follow in the Dittrick Museum) Allen Memorial Medical Library, 1000 Euclid Ave., Cleveland OH 44106

If you plan on joining us please RSVP by October 28th to
Jennifer Nieves <> or by calling 216-368-3648.

About the blogger

Brandy Schillace is a medical humanist, literary scholar and writer of Gothic fiction. She is the Managing Editor, Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, a guest curator for Dittrick Museum, and a SAGES fellow for Case Western Reserve University (she has also worked as an assistant professor of literature at Winona State). She runs the Fiction Reboot and Daily Dose blogs, leads interdisciplinary conferences abroad for IDnet, and spends a lot of her time in museums and medical libraries.

Hot off the presses! : Medical Museums: Past, Present, Future

Just yesterday we received copies of Medical Museums: Past, Present, Future, published by the Royal College of Surgeons of England to mark the 200th anniversary of their museum opening. The origin of the RCSE museum may be traced to the acquisition of John Hunter’s anatomy and pathology collections in 1799. The College had just purchased property on Lincoln’s Inn Fields and would soon build its new home there, incorporating gallery space for Hunter’s collections. The doors opened in May 1813 and the Hunterian remains a distinguished medical museum today, having most recently (2005) been re-opened in a beautifully renovated setting at the College.
All this and the fascinating stories behind fifteen leading museums, authored by associated curators, directors, and historians, have been capably edited by Sam Alberti and Elizabeth Hallam, and lavishly presented in a handsome volume. The Dittrick was included along with three other American medical museums, and eleven from across the UK and Europe. Our contribution benefitted from the wonderful photography of Dittrick assistant curator Laura Travis.
We’ll be offering this book as a bonus to new and renewed membership in the Friends of the Dittrick Museum. Details to follow. In the meantime, here’s a selection of Laura Travis’s photography for the book:
Drawing by H. F. Aitken
Selection of mid 19th century contraceptives
and associated advice literature
from the Percy Skuy Collection
Midwifery manikin, c.1780
Modified Laennec stethoscope, c.1834 and
first image of the stethoscope in use,
from Dictionnaire des sciences medicales, 1819
Rogers sphygmomanometer, c.1920
from the M. Donald Blaufox collection
Percussion and reflex hammers.

About the blogger

James Edmonson is Chief Curator of the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum of Case Western Reserve University, and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of History. Publications include American Surgical Instruments (1997) and Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine, 1880-1930 (Blast Books, 2009).  Dr. Edmonson serves as American liaison to and Secretary General of the European Association of Museums of the History of Medical Sciences. Read more here.