The ever so slightly macabre, fantastically intriguing and wonderfully well presented Museum of the History of Medicine provides a fabulous respite from the frantic streets of Paris. And it’s not just for those with in interest in medicine. It’s for everyone: form history fans to architecture buffs and completionists wanting to tick another Parisian sight off their ‘to do lists’. This stunning little palace of often dark medical experimentation is quite simply wonderful… but perhaps not for the feint of heart.
Before I run through some of my favourite pieces in the museum, I’d like to share a little history. The Museum of The History of Medicine or the Musée d’Histoire de la Médecine is housed inside the Paris Descartes University, which in turn was the premises of the Faculty of Medicine/ Medical School, which was founded in 1803 and situated in the buildings of the Academy of Surgery. The museum’s initial collections were curated by Dean Lafaye in the 18th century and are said to be the oldest in Europe. Finding the museum isn’t too tricky but once you reach the right place – in this case 12 rue de l’école de médecine – you’ll need to head indoors through the beautiful University building (see interior shots below) and up to the second floor. Once inside you’ll come face-to-face with old medical instruments, medical models, prosthetic limbs, macabre paintings depicting blood transfusions and much more.
One of my favourite pieces is the small table pictured below: the intricate, though slightly gruesome design is quite literally a mosaic made entirely of human body parts – and the eye catching centrepiece? A severed human foot – complete with an engraved silver top, and four delicately arranged human ears. The accompanying description reads: ‘Made by Efisio Marini, Italian naturalist doctor, and offered to Napoléon III. This table is formed of petrified brains, blood, bile, liver, lungs and glands upon which rests a foot, four ears and sections of vertebrae, which are also petrified.’
Of course the museum is full of intriguing little curios (some 1500 or so) but here, in no particular order is a visual summary of some of my favourite bits and pieces – with any information available.
The painting below actually hangs just outside the entrance to the museum within the university – the oil on canvas represents a blood transfusion from a goat to a somewhat pale young lady. Most interestingly the man who commissioned the painting in 1892, is the bearded gent looking down at the lady – a Parisian doctor by the name of Samuel Bernheim. The painting shows a real-life moment, one documented by a report published by Bernheim in that same year in a French medical journal titled, “Transfusion de sang de chevre et tuberculose pulmonaire” — transfusion of a goat’s blood and pulmonary tuberculosis.
The next two images are of various bottles found in the museum – sadly I don’t have the full information for these but I assume that they are medicine bottles and no doubt, the larger ones are some sort of vessel/ bottles used during procedures/research. My father used to collect medicine bottles and I’ve always had a slight fascination with them – the strange shapes and colours and often.. the odd odours percolating inside for centuries!
This next image is a collection by the infamous Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne – a French neurologist who in 1833 experimented with the therapeutic use of electricity. Simply put – he used alternating currents to stimulate individual muscles in the face to simulate facial expressions. He found that a genuine happy smile uses not just the facial muscles but the eyes too. He used his photography to catalog the possible expressions of each of his subjects – whom were often paralysed and unable to make said expressions without these techniques. He published a book in 1862 entitled – “Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine, ou Analyse électro-physiologique de l’expression des passions applicable à la pratique des arts plastiques” (or Mechanism of human physiognomy, or electro-physiological analysis of the expression of passions applicable to the practice of the visual arts). It’s fascinating stuff – take a look here for more info.
The next couple of pictures are focused on the eye – the first is a series of models depicting various eye conditions – look out for Chemosis in the below image – though just skip over it if you’re easily put off. The second is fascinating – it appears to be a mechanical face mask complete with a protruding eye ball – I’d like to think that its use was for something such as a steampunk take on a Venetian carnival mask – though I assume I’m wrong and its use was undoubtedly of a grimmer nature.
EDIT: After more research I believe the above mask to be an Ophtalmofantôme – a tool used to train medical students and eye surgeons to perform cataract and other eye surgeries. However it’s slightly different to the typical mask, which were invented ca. 1827 by Dr. Albert Sachs as these typically used cadaver’s eyes or pigs eyes in the eye-sockets, while the above example seems to have a mechanical eye in place.
The Museum Building
As I’ve mentioned already, the museum is stunning. It’s in a pretty and quiet street in the 6th arrondissement of Paris and is housed in the ornate Université Paris Descartes building. The museum room is upstairs and is something of an exhibit in of itself, as are the atmospheric hallways and stairwells that lead there.
The Museum of The History of Medicine is really quite small – but as you can see from the image below – it’s exceptionally beautiful – there is a large main room complete with two walkways to each side – one of which was being used for storage when I visited. The small figure closest to view is actually a Japanese acupuncture mannequin brought to Paris by Isaac Titsingh.
The Museum of the History of Medicine is one of our favourite museums in Paris – if not our favourite. Have you visited or do you intend to? What do you think of the intriguing artefacts and the beautiful University building? Or do you have another interesting museum in Paris that you’d like to suggest? Let me know in the comments below!