THE BLOG
11/09/2011 05:58 pm ET Updated Jan 09, 2012

Two-Headed Fetus and Other Oddities in the Gold Coast

The Gold Coast, known for its posh shopping and dining, is also home to a two-headed fetus... and other oddities. What constitutes an "oddity," you ask? Well, for starters, I'm talking about a jar of real kidney stones. And a jar of bladder stones. And a jar of gallstones.

I found these oddities at the International Museum of Surgical Science (IMSS).

One of the great things about this museum (aside from its plethora of jars) is its setting. Unlike most museums, the IMSS is located in a four-story historic mansion on N. Lake Shore Drive. In other words, this place is great for architecture nerds and science nerds.

Because I'm of the latter subset of nerds, I can't say too much about the building itself. I can, however, tell you that the mansion offers spectacular views of Lake Michigan. I can also tell you that the building, built in 1917, is beautiful. According to the museum's website:

The elegant structure was designed to follow the historic lines of Le Petit Trianon, a French chateau on the grounds of Versailles completed in 1770 for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The noted Chicago architect Howard Van Doren Shaw was hired to design the Countiss mansion with modifications including a fourth floor added to the original design, adding a door on the side street, and opening up the northernmost bay for a carriage drive.

But enough about architecture. Let's talk about weird sciencey stuff.

The IMSS has quite the collection of historical surgical equipment. As someone who has Google-image-searched "steampunk stethoscope" more than once, I was excited to see authentic old-fashioned medical devices. Many of the museum's archaic surgical tools could easily double as torture devices. (Disturbingly enough, one could probably say the same thing about contemporary surgical tools.) One such example of eerie historical medical equipment is the museum's display of trephination tools.

Trephination was a procedure in which the surgeon drilled a hole into the patient's cranium. This was a supposed cure for a wide array of neurological ailments, such as seizures. It was performed as early as 6000 B.C. and as recently as the Renaissance. Let me emphasize the fact that this was one of many procedures performed in the pre-anesthesia era. "Ouch" is probably an understatement.

Another exhibit I found especially interesting was the museum's polio exhibit, which features a fully functional iron lung. Prior to visiting the museum, all my perceptions of iron lungs came from old, grainy videos of the polio epidemic. Although the museum's machine is painted a pretty shade of teal, it looks just as bizarre as the iron lungs in black-and-white stock footage.

I still can't help but think that this medical artifact looks like a prop from a science fiction movie. The exhibit reminded me that iron lungs are now obsolete because of the advent of vaccination. I am quite grateful that I don't have to spend time in a cylindrical steel breathing apparatus, particularly because of my claustrophobic tendencies. If I were to lay in an iron lung, I would probably have a panic attack, no matter if the machine were painted teal or pink or yellow.

The iron lung wasn't the only piece that featured pretty colors. Throughout the IMSS, art and science are paired. The museum features health care-related paintings, sculptures, videos, and installations. For example, Visceralab, an installation piece by Alison Petty Ragguette, is a network of tubes that pumps colored liquid through an interwoven series of loops. The piece serves as a metaphor to the intricate tubing that transports blood and lymph throughout our bodies.

A non-contemporary example of art-meets-science at the museum is the collection of old anatomy textbooks and sketches. I thoroughly enjoyed perusing this display. My enthusiasm toward this exhibit was actually somewhat surprising. Usually, my attitude toward anatomy textbooks is anything but enthusiastic. My personal collection of anatomy textbooks is currently gathering dust on my bookshelf.

The museum's collection, however, was exciting because of its historical context. For example, Dutch artist Jan Wandelaar's 1741 anatomical sketches feature a skeleton posing with Clara, a famous rhinoceros. Clara, born in India in 1738, traveled the world for the 17 years and is the subject of many works of art from that era. The anatomy books on my bookshelf suffer from a serious lack of rhinoceroses.

Science and art are also coupled in the Our Body exhibit. The IMSS has several specimens from this well-known traveling exhibit that features preserved human bodies. The bodies, because of the creative ways they're displayed, are both informative and striking. One such body is sliced into ½ inch cross sections and displayed lengthwise. This arrangement allows viewers to appreciate both the cross sections and the sum of their parts. Viewing this exhibit is like taking a crash course in anatomy, without the tests, quizzes, and stench of cadavers.

The IMSS website indicates that their next exhibit is entitled Skin/Deep: The Paradoxes of Plastic Surgery. I have high hopes that this exhibit will blend medicine, art, and history as nicely as their current exhibits do.

If you're interested in architecture, art, or scenic views, this museum might be the place for you. But if you're interested in surgical history and medical oddities, this museum is the place for you.

The International Museum of Surgical Science is located at 1524 N. Lake Shore Drive. The museum is closed on Mondays. Admission is $15 for adults, $10 for students and military, and $7 for children. It is free on Tuesdays.