House History

This building – 1524 North Lake Shore Drive – was built as a wedding present to Eleanor Robinson Countiss in 1917. The house was designed to resemble “Le Petit Trianon,” a French chateau that is best known as the extravagant retreat house of Marie Antoinette. The Countiss family was the sole owner of the building until Dr. Max Thorek and the International College of Surgeons acquired it. After several years of renovating the building and forming the Museum collection, the Museum opened its doors to the public in 1954.Much of the flooring and walls on the first and second floors are original to the house. Please treat the building respectfully, but also feel free to explore at your leisure!

First Floor

Feel free to begin your tour by heading up the ramp to the Historic Apothecary (Ap). In this area, you will also learn about the history of Dentistry (1D) and Pharmacy (1E). The Historic Apothecary (Ap) has been reconstructed using materials from two actual apothecaries that operated at the turn of the twentieth century. Take a look at some of the vials and bottles on the wall! Many of the herbs offered, including belladonna and Mandrake root, have actual medicinal properties but can also seriously injure or kill a person if offered in the wrong dosage. Spend some time looking around and see if you can identify any other questionable cures!

From there, head up to the second floor to continue your visit!

Second Floor

The Second Floor is divided into three large and two small rooms. Begin your journey in the Hall of Immortals (2F), which includes names and themes that will follow you throughout the galleries. Commissioned by museum founder Dr. Max Thorek, the sculptures (2F) and murals (2D) depict major advancements in the history of surgery and medicine.

Pay close attention to Semmelweis’, Pasteur’s, and Lister’s sculptures. They helped pioneer modern theories about surgery and public health that, while initially rejected in their own time, eventually became staples of medical practices. Notice that the themes of germ theory and hygiene are repeated.

Make your way through the Hall/Landing (2G) to view the paintings on either side of the entrance to the Hall of Murals (2D). On the left hangs Early Amputation. If this painting depicted a modern amputation, what would be different? Now look at the painting on the right, Ancient Trephining. What is trephination? Why was it performed?

Head into the Hall of Murals (2D) to view more paintings by the artist of the previous two! Like the Hall of Immortals (2F), this exhibit includes a theme that will follow you through the museum: the development of anesthesia!

Find the painting War and Surgery. In 1536, the procedure of cauterization by pouring boiling oil onto an amputee’s wounds was used to stop excessive bleeding. What problems would cauterization have caused? How did Ambroise Paré change this practice?

After looking at the murals, continue on to Optical History (2C). The inside of our eyes have a lens similar to those used in eyeglasses to correct vision, when the lens within the eye becomes clouded, the patient has a cataract. When was the first cataract surgery performed?

The final special exhibit at the south end is that of Polio (2B). One of the first items donated to the museum, the iron lung is a testament to how far surgical science has evolved. Polio is one of the few extant diseases with no cure. However, vaccinations are now readily available as part of the PolioPlus program and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

From here, it’s onto the third floor!

Third Floor

When you reach the landing on the third floor, turn right into the Obstetrics and Urology room (3D). Take a look at the C-section painting. Although it looks like a morbid scene, it’s actually a depiction of the first C-section in which both mother and child survived the procedure. Anesthesia is present in the painting, although it doesn’t look like it! Take a look at the small bowl on the lower left of the image. Herbs were often mixed with wine, and a sponge was used to give the patient small doses carefully. Mandrake root was the primary herb used at the time. Small doses would help dull the pain of the patient, but too much would induce a hallucinogenic state.

Continue into the Classroom and Nursing Exhibition (3C). Here, you will often find our staff delivering workshops, demonstrating amputation procedures, and more. Lining the walls is an exhibition devoted to the history of nursing. Be sure to stop by the glass display case between the two windows; it contains original letters written by Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton, two of the most important figures in the history of nursing.

Head to the Taiwan Room (3B) to learn about the history of medical practice in Taiwan. The objects in this room were given to the Museum by the Taiwanese section of the International College of Surgeons. Taiwanese health professionals have made important contributions to a number of fields, including neurosurgery, emergency medicine, anesthesiology, and organ transplantation. Check out the video display to learn more about organ transplantation in Taiwan.

Across the hall is the Japan Room (3A). The Japanese section of the International College of Surgeons provided the contents of this room. Here, you will find a large painting of the Japanese surgeon Seishu Hanaoka (1760-1835). Hanaoka is known as the first person to perform surgery on a patient who was under general anesthesia. His wife and his mother both volunteered to receive anesthesia, at great personal risk to themselves, in order to assist Hanaoka with his research. What are some differences between the application of anesthesia and the set-up of the surgery shown in this painting and the C-section painting in the Obstetrics room?

Next, you will come to the Medical Illustration room (3G). The large painting is a reproduction of a famous work by Rembrandt called The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632). In the corner is a model reproduction of the Anatomical Theater at the University of Padua.

The discovery of the X-ray changed the way doctors viewed the human body and diagnosed diseases. In the Medical Imaging Room (3F), you will learn about the history of X-ray technology, its uses in medicine, and the risks that are brought about by radiation exposure. One of the most interesting objects in this room is the X-ray Shoe Fitter from the early 20th century. The shoe fitter is an excellent example of how commodified X-rays became before people understood the consequences of casual X-ray exposure. The shoe fitter wasn’t particularly useful for measuring shoe sizes; it didn’t do much other than show the person’s toes.

The last room on this floor contains an exhibit on Understanding and Enduring Pain (3E). Here, you will find a collection of anesthesia-inhaling masks dating from the Civil War to around 1900. These masks were used to administer anesthetic compounds like chloroform and ether.

Fourth Floor

Walk around the fourth floor to experience our Rotating Contemporary Art (4C, 4E, 4F) exhibits! Each exhibit combines contemporary art with the themes of the museum’s medical history.

Moving throughout the fourth floor, you will reach the Spanish Mural Gallery (4D). Large paintings depicting the Spanish history of surgery hang on each wall. What practices and themes are highlighted? How does this compare to the Hall of Murals (2A)?Find the painting section titled Los Traductores de Toledo. Arabic-speaking scholars preserved Greek and Roman scientific writings by translating the texts into Arabic. These Eastern scholars made great advances in mathematics, astronomy, and medicine and gained further knowledge from the Greek and Roman texts. The four figures depicted here represent the scholars who translated these texts from Arabic to Latin, which made the texts accessible to Western audiences.

Also featured in the Spanish Mural Gallery (4D) is a plaster funeral mask of Napoleon Bonaparte. This mask is one of several cast after the French leader’s death.

Head to Surgical Technology (4B) to learn about one of the fastest-growing professions in the US. With beginnings going back to Ignaz Semmelweis’ groundbreaking discovery in the impact of handwashing, the field of surgical technology serves surgeons and their patients to promote a safe and sterile environment. You can read a letter by Semmelweis to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in this exhibit as well as listen to the stories of modern surgical technologists and their education.

Moving on to Trephination (hallway), you can view Peruvian skulls with visible holes from ancient trephination as well as tools that would have been used.