Bad to the Bone

A new exhibit explores the history of horrible medical practices


A skeleton and other human remains are among the artifacts featured in the exhibit.

Hal, who’s been dead for 100 years, greets all visitors to the new exhibit at the William P. Didusch Center for Urologic History.

He can’t do much other than hang out, but as a full set of human bones, he’s an appropriate ambassador for “Skeletons in the Closet: Indignities and Injustices in Medicine,” an overview of the shady and sinister things that have been done in the name of science.

“Back in ancient Egypt, they dissected people alive,” says physician Michael Moran, the curator of the museum. “So it started on not such a glorious footnote.”

But while he notes that many of these early experiments are horrifying to us, they provided a basis of knowledge that’s helped create medicine as we know it.

One example: blood transfusions. The first ones attempted were from sheep to humans. “It never worked,” Moran says. (Perhaps that’s why 19th-century German doctor Oscar Hasse recommended the lethal treatment for “incurable diseases.”) Gradually, however, they led to human-to-human transfusions, and the process was able to save lives.

The exhibit highlights the stories of a few doctors whose actions stir up debate, such as Michigan physician William Beaumont. In 1822, he treated 19-year-old Alexis St. Martin, who’d been shot in the gut with a musket. The patient survived with a gastric fistula, which Beaumont proceeded to use to study digestion for the next 10 years. He probably wouldn’t have had access to St. Martin, except that he coerced the patient into signing a contract, so he couldn’t leave.

Other panels tell of much more flagrant abuses of medical power, many of which are well known: the horrors at Nazi concentration camps, the eugenics movement (and forced sterilization), the Tuskegee syphilis study.

Moran predicts fewer people are familiar with the information the exhibit has on Japan’s gruesome biological and chemical warfare research during World War II. When subjects were no longer able to submit to further testing, they were all killed.

It’s the sort of information about medicine that could make you sick, which is why the museum has made a concerted effort to help visitors leave on a positive note. The exhibit also covers apologies from governments coming clean about their history and explains the importance of ethics in science today.

“There’s no better time to be a patient,” Moran says. “There are more protections, and everybody’s looking out for you.” Even Hal the skeleton.

The exhibit will be on display until 2013 at the William P. Didusch Center for Urologic History (1000 Corporate Blvd., Linthicum, Md.; 410-689-3785, Urologichistory.museum). Guided tours, which can be scheduled Mondays through Fridays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., are recommended. Request a week in advance of your visit by emailing archives@auanet.org.

Vicky Hallett is a MisFits columnist and the Fit editor for Express.
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