By Brandy Schillace
If it weren’t for a headless anatomical machine designed to birth small leather dolls, we might never have met.
It was 2007. I was in the thick of writing my dissertation on the history of women’s education in the 1700s. Muddling through old texts and swimming in Post-it-notes, I found myself continually running aground on an elusive reference: birthing machine. Mechanical woman. Seriously? There is nothing like a lengthy writing project to encourage tangential thinking, and so I began to pursue this strange device in the history of medicine.
I like to think of this moment as pivotal, for from this point forward I was on a trajectory away from literature proper and toward the history of science and medicine. It launched me on a three-year search (in three countries) for the obstetrical manikin of Dr. William Smellie—a London man-midwife responsible for training 900 more of his kind and helping to shift midwifery from the hands of women to the instruments of men. As with many real-life expeditions, this one did not result in a triumphant Indiana-Jones like discovery. Or did it? In my quest, I discovered something even more meaningful. The best collection of obstetrical materials, books, history, and even an obstetrical manikin of later make were housed in my own backyard. Welcome to the Dittrick Museum of Medical History—the museum you’ve yet to meet.
The Dittrick has a valuable collection of microscopes, a number of Darwin’s letters, the most comprehensive collection of surgical instruments in America, and the largest collection of diagnostic instruments and historical contraceptives—in the world. The museum also boasts not one but three ivory anatomical models from the 1500s, three standing anatomical models of various materials, and Juno, the transparent woman. Most important to my journey into medical history, however, is the Dittrick’s rare and remarkable obstetrical phantom from 18th-century France, pictured here with the leather infant safely interred.
I had traveled half-way across the world to see William Smellie’s anatomy book, only to find that the same volume (and a first edition of his colleague William Hunter) was right here, in Cleveland—along with an actual artifact from the same time period! How had I missed that?
Not to worry if you’ve missed it, too. It has almost become a jest among Dittrick fans it is the invisible museum, that the first thing people say when they arrive is “I didn’t know this existed! How long has this been here?” I admit to relishing the rejoinder: since 1898. How is it that such a fantastic museum collection goes unnoticed? Some of it has to do with location—on the third floor of the Allen Memorial Medical Library, just across the street from Severance Hall. It isn’t always apparent that an entire history of medicine’s strangest stories awaits upstairs, but there they are. Want to know what a weasel’s testicles, a pomegranate, and crocodile dung have in common? Curious about how surgery was performed before antiseptic—or anesthesia? Want to know what it would have been like to be pregnant in 1760, or sick in 1810? Come and see—the museum is open Monday through Friday and it’s free. There are events, too; Robert Reid spoke this year on contraception and Lindsey Fitzharris (the medical historian behind the website Chirurgeon’s Apprentice and a documentary called Medicine’s Dark Secrets) told the human stories behind museum specimens. In the spring, the museum will have a guest lecture on anatomy artist Jan van Rymsdyk—and it’s are preparing for an “Obscura Day” event that will revolve around forensic medicine (and Sherlock Holmes, of course!) These and other events are covered on the Dittrick website and blog. Check it out soon; I’m dying to give you a tour!
That’s right, I’m still at the museum, myself. I did finish that dissertation—and I even moved away to Minnesota to take a tenure-track faculty position. But as numerous Belt contributors have pointed out (including Policy Matters’ Amy Hanauer), Cleveland is a place of possibility and hidden gems. And, as the Dittrick’s curator is fond of saying, “Sometimes, Cleveland beckons one home.” I worked for three years away from my roots and was only too happy to return again, not only to Cleveland but to one of Cleveland’s best-kept secrets.
These days, I spend my time researching the Cleveland smallpox outbreak of 1903—or the treatment of syphilis during the Civil War—or how the Cleveland Clinic was born from surgery in WWI France. In fact, as I write this, there are no fewer than nine books of history on my desk … and an amputation saw. It’s a magical universe I’ve landed in, and I hope you will discover it, too.
Brandy Schillace is Research Associate and guest curator and blogger for the Dittrick Museum of Medical History. She is also the managing editor of Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, an international journal of cross-cultural health research, and a SAGES teaching fellow at Case Western Reserve University.