Brain Surgery for Dummies

Posted by Peg Boettcher at

It arrived in a hatbox. It came from a shop in Bellingham, Washington that had closed its doors. Before that, who knew? The only address attached to it (literally attached, because it was hand-lettered right onto the scalp) was a street address in New York.

Medical Ed showing address on scalp

That was all we at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop knew. Except that it was obviously a real human head.

But such a head! This was no tribal artifact, the result of complex cultural rituals whose roots were lost in the mists of time. Would the Korowai people of New Guinea tan the skin like that of a fine kid glove? Would the Shuar headhunters of Peru crosscut the bone neatly in several places, then affix tiny brass screws and hooks along the openings?

Neither did it appear to be the end product of a horrible accident, or crime, or grave-robbing expedition. What was this peculiar object, then? The display case waited while search after internet search came up empty.

19th century brain surgeryFinally an answer came from an unimpeachable source, Dr. Lenore T. Barbian, Acting Curator of Anatomical Collections at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, DC. Dr. Barbian kindly answered our query. “Specimens similar to this one are generally referred to as ‘anatomical preparations,’” she said. “They were widely prepared during the 1800s and into the very early 1900s by a number of different biological supply houses both in Europe and in the United States. They were to be used to teach anatomical structures of the human body. Often times, real human body parts (usually bone and/or dried muscles and tendons) would form the base of the preparation, and other structures would be artificially manufactured with wax, papier-mache, etc.” 


An anatomical preparation. That explained why the dome of the cranium lifted clear off and the face opened like a book. The aim was to reveal the secrets of the human skull so that students could have some confidence when they performed surgery on real, live patients. In the days before plastics and resins, the next best thing to a real, live patient was a real, dead one. And if a fresh cadaver was unavailable, then Medical Ed would more than suffice.

Forceps? Check. Scissors? Check. Mummified human head? Check. Medical Ed: Brain Surgery for Dummies.

Peg Boettcher has been wrangling curios and working for Ye Olde Curiosity Shop since 2004.

• The history of brain surgery, the oldest medical art, dating back to 7,000 BC!
• Shop for skull-related goodies at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop
• La Specola museum in Florence, Italy, houses the elegant granddaddy of all anatomical specimen collections


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