The origin of the McGill Medical Museum can be traced to the beginning of the Montreal General Hospital (in 1822) and its offshoot, the Montreal Medical Institute (which became the McGill Medical Faculty in 1829). Specimens of diseased tissue were collected over the years by physicians who worked at the hospital, most notably William Osler between 1876 and 1884. In an attempt to provide some order to the collection, the job of Museum curator was included in the responsibilities of the Chair of Pathology when it was endowed in 1893.
Perhaps because of his many other responsibilities, the first Chair, Dr. George Adami, had little to do with the collection and he appointed Maude Abbott Assistant Curator in 1898. In the following year she decided to visit some of the museums at teaching centers in the United States in order to learn how they were organized. In January, she travelled to Washington, D. C. where she met William Osler who encouraged her to develop the McGill Museum.
Upon Abbott's return to Montreal, she began work in earnest, reviewing and classifying specimens in the collection and adding new ones she received from doctors at McGill's teaching hospitals. Significant progress was made in her endeavor and by 1906 the Pathology Museum alone held over 3,000 specimens.
Unfortunately disaster struck in May 1907 when a fire broke out in the medical building and destroyed approximately two thirds of the Museum specimens, including the entire collection of bones. Abbott was devastated, but help was around the corner in the International Association of Medical Museums.
The concept of such an association originated with McGill physician Wyatt Johnson, who suggested to Abbott in 1898 that she and the curator of the Army Medical Museum in Washington, D. C. (Major James Carroll) organize “a society of curators”. Discussions were held at various times over the following years, and the groundwork for the Association was laid at meetings in Washington, D. C. and Baltimore in 1906. The first official meeting of the International Association of Medical Museums was held in Washington, D. C. just after the Montreal fire. One of the mandates of the Association was to facilitate sharing of specimens between museums and in its first newsletter Abbott made a request to the various member museums for assistance in replenishing the McGill collection. The Army Medical Museum in Washington D. C. responded with a donation of approximately 1,200 bone specimens. Seventy-six of these specimens remain in the McGill Medical Museum today, of which 27 are examples of injuries incurred in the American Civil War. These form the basis of the present exhibit.