The McGill Medical Museum originated in the early 1820s as a collection of specimens derived from autopsies performed by physicians associated with the McGill Medical School. Its early facilities were modest. For example, between 1841 and 1845, the Faculty occupied a warehouse-like building which contained only “a small bit of a room for pathological preparations, of which there were very few, preserved in weak pyrolignous acid in square colored bottles closed by cork bungs...”.
A much-improved area was included in a new medical building erected on the Campus in 1872. This became the repository for many pathology specimens gathered by William Osler between 1876 and 1884, during which time he performed approximately 800 autopsies at the Montreal General Hospital.
The Faculty of Medicine established a Department of Pathology in 1892. Among the responsibilities of its first Chair, Dr. George Adami, was the museum. He hired Maude Abbott to be its curator in 1898. That year during a trip to the Army Medical Museum in Washington to learn about the system of classification at that museum, she met Osler, who told her:
“That McGill Museum is a great place. As soon as you go home, look up the British Medical Journal for 1893 and read the article by Mr. Jonathan Hutchison on “A Clinical Museum”. That is what he calls his museum in London and it is the greatest place I know for teaching students in. Pictures of life and death together. Wonderful – you read it and see what you can do.”
Abbott took these words to heart and enthusiastically began developing the museum. One of her first projects was to increase the use of museum specimens in student teaching. At first, this was done on an ad hoc basis. However, in 1904, museum demonstrations became a compulsory part of the medical curriculum, and in fact became so popular that some students would return every morning at 8 A.M. to review the material of the previous day.
During this same period, Francis Shepherd was developing the anatomy museum. He had become Professor of Anatomy and Director of the museum in 1883. The Anatomy Museum was located in a different area from the pathology collection and consisted mostly of skeletal specimens, both human and animal (for the study of comparative anatomy).
The two museums suffered a serious setback in 1907 when a fire destroyed much of the medical building, including all the anatomy collection and two-thirds of the pathology one. Abbott sent an appeal to various museums in the Newsletter of the recently established International Association of Medical Museums, and between April 1907 and July 1910 approximately 3,000 specimens were donated. At the same time, Shepherd began actively purchasing both skeletal specimens and non-biological models, made of a material such as wax or plaster, to replace the lost anatomical collection. All this material was placed in a beautiful three-story display area in the newly built Strathcona Medical building in 1909.
Abbott’s museum continued to play an important part in the education of medical students for the next 10 years, following which conceptual differences arose between the new Pathology Chairman, Dr. Horst Oërtel, and Abbott about the nature of pathology and the manner in which it should be taught. Over her objections, Oërtel reorganized the Pathology Department and its Museum in time to coincide with their transfer from the Strathcona Medical Building to the newly constructed Pathological Institute in 1924. The day-to-day management of the new Pathology Museum, including the accessioning and preparation of specimens and their use in teaching, was taken over by Oërtel, leaving Abbott effectively isolated in the Strathcona Building as Curator of the newly named “Central” Medical Museum.
Following Abbott’s death in 1940, the specimens of pathologic interest which remained in her Museum—including the Osler collection and Abbott’s own cardiovascular specimens—were transferred to the Pathological Institute. Specimens continued to be accessioned, preserved, and mounted in its basement museum workshop until 1972. The Pathological Institute museum was converted into a research laboratory in the 1940s and its specimens were moved to storage or to a basement teaching space. In 1996, the last teaching specimens were again moved, this time to storage in the now unused Museum workshop where they languished, some leaking fluid and drying, and all gathering dust.
Under the leadership of Charles Leblond and Yves Clermont after 1950, the Anatomy department developed both teaching and research in cell biology. Although classical anatomical teaching was still a prominent feature of the medical school curriculum, its importance in the department thus decreased. Despite this, many large preparations for student teaching were created in the dissecting room in the 1970s. Eventually, however, much of display space for this and historical material was converted to offices or research labs and the material came to the same fate as its pathology counterpart.
Renewed interest in the Medical Museum was stimulated by the 100th Anniversary Congress of the International Academy of Pathology held in Montreal in 2006. Because of the close association between the Academy (initially called the International Association of Medical Museums and cofounded by Abbott) and the McGill Medical Museum, the Congress had a prominent historical emphasis, including a replica of the Museum in the Congress exhibit hall. The work involved in mounting the display led to an increased appreciation of the value of the Museum’s collections and the University officially establishing the Maude Abbott Medical Museum in 2012. During the summer of 2013, the entire pathology collection was transferred back to the Strathcona Anatomy and Dentistry Building, where it was reunited with the remaining anatomical material.
Since then, the museum has acquired and preserved non-biological material of historical teaching and research interest from both McGill medical faculty departments and Schools (such as Physiology and Physical and Occupational Therapy) and from outside donors. Its entire collection now includes over 7000 items. These are being used to teach not only principles of pathology and anatomy for which they were initially acquired but also the history of medicine.
Abbott ME. McGill's Heroic Past 1821-1921. Montreal: McGill University.
Abbott ME. History of medicine in the province of Quebec. Montreal: McGill University; 1931.
Hanaway J. and Cruess R. McGill Medicine: The First Half Century: 1829-1885. Montreal, McGill-Queens Press, 1996