Berliner Medizinhistorisches Museum

Yesterday I went to the Berliner Medizinhistorisches Museum, at the Charité Universitätsmedizin Berlin. (History of Medicine Museum at the Charity Medical School, Berlin.)

When I first arrived I had a few extra minutes before I was to meet with my friend, so I walked around the grounds and absorbed the feel of the place. I wasn’t expecting to be so delighted by the architecture. It’s part hospital, part university, part fairy tale.

I so wish I had photographs of the inside to post, but photography is
not allowed there. Partly it’s just because they want visitors to buy
the €24 photo book, but really I think it’s a good idea to not have
photos of this stuff all over the internet. It was impossible for me to
forget while I was there that however creepy and bizarre these specimens
may be, they are people and their parts.

The first exhibit in the museum was about the place itself – originally built as a plague-house in 1740, then converted into a combination free hospital for the poor and teaching hospital for army doctors. My friend and I both noted that it originally had its own brewery and employed barmaids, along with it’s vegetable gardens and orchards. It was a warm, clean place to live with plenty of fresh food, in a time when these healing basics were hard for many of its patients to come by. The conditions declined over time, but I lost interest in the exhibit, eager to get to the pathology specimens.

The next exhibits were a series of cubicles, each focused on the practice of a particular physician. Brilliantly curated I thought, each display included a journal, a case history drawn from the journal, some artifacts and the story of the physician’s practice. Slowed from rushing to the later exhibits, I was enthralled by the rich diversity of medical culture: an astrologer, a homeopath, a naturalist, a polymath who practiced architecture using the same basic principles of planetary alignment as he did in medicine, a noble who gave away free medicines and medical devices, an executioner’s son who struggled to be accepted as a physician. They designed medical instruments or wax models of disease states or amulets of organs or systems of classification of pathologies. They used the humoral model, or encouraged their patients to pray harder, or rigorously tried to understand pathology, or just used whatever seemed to work. Some welcomed all the help they could get from any other kind of practitioner, some jealously guarded their turf.

Next, the ruins of the old operating theater. It was bombed during the war and the room has been rebuilt around the ruins, a complex and layered space. The site of so much medical education, surgeries and autopsies performed for an audience of 200 sitting and 50 standing in the balcony. And then rubble. And now a space for meetings and lectures and press conferences. It smells like formaldehyde.

Finally, the creepy hall of specimens. The previous exhibits had prepared me for this as a unique learning experience. I understood that it originated as a way for medical students to see both normal anatomy and pathological conditions up close. But of course I felt a sort of lurid curiosity as well. How grossed out would I feel? And how fascinated? A few examples of normal physiology for comparison’s sake. A cute little infant uterus, a neatly dissected Ring of Willis, one of my favorite body parts. But then also brutally twisted skeletons that seemed to cry out in pain, organs exploding with cancers, one deformed baby after another. A real life cyclops, a real life mermaid, Janus-heads with two or three faces. Many others that just didn’t make any sense at all. How miraculous it is that fetal development ever works out. There are so many ways for it to go wrong! I never knew that syphilis erodes the bones so that they look like lace. Now I will never forget that. Standing alone in a huge glass cylinder was what looked like an enormous brown snake. “What is that?” I asked my friend, “It can’t possibly have come from a human body, it’s too big.” Word by word we worked out what the tag said, using our smartphone translation apps. “Oh my god, it’s an intestinal blockage!” She became quite nauseous. We turned away from it and back to the comparatively easy-to-look-at aneurysms, fatty livers, gastric ulcers, arthritic knees and hardened arteries.

I felt enormous empathy for the people who had had to live in these bodies, for the women who had birthed these odd masses of tissue, the midwives and doctors who had delivered them. At the same time I felt oddly neutral. This is life, this is how it is. Sometimes it is beautiful and harmonious. Sometimes it is disgusting and illogically dissonant. Sometimes you just can’t even figure out what is going on.

I left all the more sure that my place is in health promotion and functional disease, not in organic pathology. My teacher Michael made that distinction often, and was a firm believer that herbs were much more effective during the functional phase, when relatively healthy tissues and organs are not functioning well but the problems are mostly reversible. When the problem has reached the point where it can be called organic disease, that is, that the tissue and/or organs are irreversibly damaged and perhaps worthy of exhibit in the halls of a pathology museum, herbs can still help but are not generally the best primary modality. “Know your turf” he would say. Sometimes it’s easiest to understand the edges of one’s own territory by venturing outside of it.

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