Hidden gem opens doors to public

The malformed heart of a young man.

A child’s trachea with a peanut still lodged inside.

A giant hairball removed from a human stomach.

These are the kinds of specimens, preserved in fluid and mounted in glass, that would have been on display in a typical 19th century medical-school classroom, says Rick Fraser, MDCM’76, a professor in the McGill Department of Pathology and a pathologist at the McGill University Health Centre.

Now, for the first time, members of the public can discover the McGill Faculty of Medicine’s historical collection of anatomical and pathological materials at the newly renovated Maude Abbott Medical Museum. Like the University itself, the collection got its start almost two centuries ago.

It would not be possible to amass such a collection now. “Today, you give your tissue for research, rather than have it displayed,” says Fraser, who is director of the museum, adding that 19th-century medical students were even known to raid graveyards.

What value do these specimens hold in 2018? They are both a testament to the past and a precious resource for the present, Fraser explains. They allow us to see for ourselves the effect of once-common diseases such as syphilis, extrapulmonary tuberculosis and rickets, while telling the story of medical education around the world and at McGill.

The museum’s namesake, Maude Abbott, BA 1890, MDCM (honoris causa) 1910, holds an important place in Canadian and medical history. She was one of the first women to graduate from McGill, but had to go elsewhere, to Bishop’s University, to earn her medical degree, because the Faculty of Medicine didn’t admit women at that time.

Abbott returned to McGill, to work as an assistant curator and then curator of its pathology museum. In 1910, she became the first woman to earn a degree, albeit honorary, in medicine from McGill. As a researcher, she became a world authority on congenital heart disease, publishing, notably, the Atlas of Congenital Heart Disease.

Sir William Osler, MDCM 1872, AKA the father of modern medicine, was a champion of Abbott’s. He donated numerous specimens to the museum, most acquired during the 800-some post-mortem examinations he performed at the Montreal General Hospital.

One of the hearts still in the Museum’s collection, the Drake Heart, belonged—in life—to Osler’s predecessor at the Faculty, Morley Drake, who had left the post only because of his failing health. Upon seeing the heart, Osler is said to have quipped that it was because of it that he had been able to get a job.

In 1907, the McGill Medical Building burnt down, and many specimens were lost. The museum relocated to the Strathcona Anatomy Building in a space custom-built for the purpose. As the years passed, the use of specimens in teaching medicine began to fall out of favour, with photographs replacing specimens as a primary teaching tool.

When Abbott died, in 1940, her museum was dissolved and many of her specimens went into storage or were destroyed. It was Abbott, says Fraser, who had made the museum into a vibrant teaching museum. Without her, and with the advent of new technologies, it gradually decreased in importance.

In 2006, an exhibit at the Congress of the International Academy of Pathology recreated Abbott’s museum, reviving interest in the materials, so to speak. Six years later, McGill opened the Maude Abbott Medical Museum, which now features pathological and anatomical specimens, along with many health care artifacts such as physical and occupational therapy equipment, microscopes and surgical instruments.

Fraser, who led the push to reopen the museum and to open its doors to the public, points out the high-domed ceiling of the Strathcona Anatomy Building, which once again houses the collection. “We really like this space because, philosophically, it makes sense when you’re coming back to where the museum was 100 years ago.”

The Maude Abbott Medical Museum officially reopened on Thursday, Sept. 20, following renovations to the main display room and the hallway exhibition space. The renovations would not have taken place if not for the generosity of the late Dr. Huntington “Skip” Sheldon, BA’51, LLD, of the McGill Medicine Class of 1976, and of the Friends of the Maude Abbott Museum.

For more information, please visit: https://www.mcgill.ca/medicalmuseum/

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