The Maude Abbott Medical Museum

The 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 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 an official Department of Pathology in 1892. Among the responsibilities of its first Chair, Dr. George Adami, was the curatorship of a museum that would house the specimens that had been collected to that time. However, Adami apparently found his other responsibilities more demanding, and he named Maude Abbott Assistant Curator in 1898. During a trip to the Army Medical Museum in Washington in 1898 to learn about the system of classification at that museum, Abbott met Osler who told her:

“That McGill Museum is 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. After order had been introduced to the collection, she began using the specimens for teaching medical students. 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. Abbott also developed a system of museum classification and began entering in a museum log book both historical specimens and new ones which she acquired from physicians at McGill. Osler was particularly impressed with Abbott’s work, writing in 1905 that the McGill Medical Museum would be “ …a model to other museums”.

Abbott’s work suffered a serious setback in 1907 when a fire destroyed much of the medical building and its contents, including approximately two-thirds of the pathology specimens. An appeal went out 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. These, and additional specimens, were soon housed in a beautiful cross-shaped display area in the Strathcona Medical building (opened 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 “Pathological” 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. The differences between Abbott and Oërtel were such that she left McGill to take up a position at the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1923. Although she only stayed two years, returning to McGill in 1925, this marked the beginning of a decline in the museum’s use which was to continue for the remainder of her life. Despite this, specimens continued to be accumulated by Abbott and at the Pathological Institute.

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. This space was taken over in 1965, once again for laboratory use, and student teaching was transferred to a series of cubicles, with the specimens located on wall racks organized according to organ system. In 1996, these were again moved, this time to storage in the now unused Museum workshop where they languished along with the specimens which had not been used for cubicle teaching, some leaking fluid and drying, and all gathering dust.

Renewed interest in the 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 the McGill Medical Museum (Abbott was one of the cofounders of the Association), the Congress had a prominent historical emphasis, including a replica of the Museum in the Congress exhibit hall.  The work involved in mounting this led to an increased appreciation of the value of the Museum collection and, in 2012, official recognition by the University as the Maude Abbott Medical Museum. During the summer of 2013, the entire "wet" specimen collection was transferred to the second floor of the Strathcona Anatomy and Dentistry Building, in one of the areas occupied by Abbott’s Museum.


About McGill History

History of the Faculty 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