A Monument to the Macabre
The International Museum of Surgical Science is an unintentionally macabre shrine to medicine, with some utterly bizarre exhibitions. This museum is both educational and fascinating, but don’t come here expecting state-of-the-art interactive computer displays. This place has more the look and feel of a Victorian curio cabinet, and is a type of monument to the macabre.
Not for the faint of stomach, it occupies a historic 1917 mansion in Chicago’s renowned Gold Coast designed by the noted architect Howard Van Doren Shaw, who modeled it after Le Petit Trianon at Versailles. Displayed throughout its four floors are surgical instruments, paintings, and sculptures depicting the history of surgery and healing practices in Eastern and Western civilizations. (It’s run by the International College of Surgeons.) The exhibits are old-fashioned (no interactive computer displays here), but that’s part of the museum’s odd appeal.
You’ll look at your doctor in a whole new way after viewing the trepanned skulls excavated from an ancient tomb in Peru. The accompanying tools bored holes in patients’ skulls, a horrific practice thought to release the evil spirits causing their illness. (Some skulls show signs of new bone growth, meaning that some lucky headache-sufferers actually survived the low-tech surgery.) There are also primitive battlefield amputation kits, a working iron-lung machine in the polio exhibit, and oddities such as a stethoscope designed to be transported inside a top hat. Other attractions include an apothecary shop and dentist’s office (ca. 1900) re-created in a historic street exhibit, and the hyperbolically titled Hall of Immortals, a sculpture gallery depicting 12 historic figures in medicine from Hippocrates to Madame Curie.
International Museum of Surgical Science, 1524 N. Lake Shore Dr. ( 312/642-6502; www.imss.org).
When to Go: Year-round.
O’Hare International (15 miles/24km).
$$ Hotel Allegro, 171 N. Randolph St. ( 800/643-1500; www.allegrochicago.com).