There are few things which truly gross me out. In fact, the more gruesome something promises to be, the more intrigued I am by it. Think about why one side of a motorway gets clogged when an accident happens on the other. We slow down to look, wondering just how bad it really was. When a friend invited me to a private English tour of Vienna’s pathological museum, this feeling of extreme curiosity took over and I had to take a look.
Walking towards the museum tower through the grounds of the old general hospital, I thought about the times I snuck into the medical school at university hiding my hulking anthology of English Literature or some other non-scientific book in my coat. The foyer had two elephant skeletons which ushered you in to view an incredible selection of both human and non-human specimens preserved to further our understanding of the life on earth. Edinburgh had more impressive galleries dedicated to pathological and anatomical wonders but it was always the quiet halls of the medical college that allowed me to walk from one display to another, wondering away to my heart’s content with no one interrupting to tell me it was closing time.
My experience in Vienna’s Narrenturm was quite different and more disturbing. The tower was designed for people with mental conditions that were not understood in the 18th century, two patients per windowless cell. After they were moved to friendlier surroundings in the countryside, this unusual prison-like facility housed a growing collection of medical specimens. Rooms were filled with glass jars of varying sizes around a theme. The Lung Room, for example, showed me how different life was for city and country dwellers. Miners, smokers, carpenters and factory-workers all had signs of their environment marked on their bodies.
These glass jars have in some way influenced my quality of life. The medical care we enjoy in Austria today is such a world away from that suffered by people without something as basic as sanitation a mere century ago. I saw wax-casts of dermatological conditions we simply do not see anymore because symptoms are detected early, preventative measures are taken and people are followed-up. I also saw some examples of alienesque mutations caused by damaged DNA sequences and was reminded of the horrors faced by people exposed to nuclear-radiation in my own lifetime. I am thankful for people who found a way to put mercury in thermometers safely so I can take my own temperature, for people who risked exposure to radioactive elements so I can have an X-ray and for all the people who dared to look, investigate and record so I can choose to look away today.