“Mortui Vivos Docent; The Dead Teach the Living.” So said Dr. John Collins Warren.
Like many medical men of his day, Warren collected anatomical and pathological specimens to help his studies. After his retirement in 1847, he left his excellent collection of unusual anatomical and pathological specimens to Harvard University.
While the collection contains more than 15,000 specimens, only a handful are on display to the public. Head to the fifth floor of the Countway Library of Medicine, and you’ll find some incredible specimens exhibited in four rather uninspired display cases.
Included in the museum is the phrenological collection of Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, including a cast of Spurzheim’s own skull. You’ll also see the Dr. W. T. G. Morton ether inhaler used in the first ether-assisted surgery, a pair of conjoined fetal skeletons, paper-maché anatomical models of eyes by Azoux, and a beautiful Beauchene, or “exploded” skull.
Without question, the most well-known, and perhaps most curious, item in the collection is the skull of Phineas Gage, the railroad worker who had a 13-pound tamping iron blown through his head and lived to tell the tale. Gage’s altered personality after the incident helped doctors begin to understand the localized nature of personality and identity.
Obscura Day location: April 9, 2011.
Update as of November 2019: The museum is temporarily closed until 2023.
Know Before You Go
The Museum's exhibition gallery is located on the fifth floor of the Countway Library of Medicine. You will need to sign in with the guard, make sure you bring a form of photo ID, then take the elevator to the fifth floor. Admission is free.
It is easiest to walk around from behind the library to the entrance, rather than follow the streets. The library is next to the Brigham T stop and is a large concrete building.