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Medical museums’ treasures

UC's medical museums preserve beautiful artworks, historic artifacts and rare books and papers.

by Mary Niehaus

Visitors to the UC Medical Center can view rare hand-colored anatomy illustrations from 18th century Italy, admire medals awarded to University of Cincinnati nurses in the Spanish-American War or try out the tiered seats in one of the country’s few remaining surgical amphitheaters. Housed in three different colleges on East Campus are collections that trace the history of medicine back to 1500, creating one of the Midwest’s best medical archives -- all of it open to the public.

Cantagalli jars photo/Peter Griga

Cantagalli jars. Photo/Peter Griga

Dr. Fischer’s gifts

Arguably the most precious and beautiful of the treasures belonging to the University of Cincinnati Medical Heritage Center and Health Sciences Library is a 109-piece set of Cantagalli jars, brightly colored Italian ceramics that replicate a 15th-century apothecary shop. Ranging in height from 3 inches to 3 feet and decorated with herbs, flowers, butterflies and caterpillars, the set was first exhibited at the Paris International Exposition of 1899.

The colorful ceramics came to UC through Dr. Martin Fischer, who taught physiology at the medical school. After purchasing them in Italy in 1924, he had them installed in his lecture hall, to bring “the spirit of the Middle Ages” to his students. Because major renovations are under way at UC’s Medical Sciences Building, most of the Cantagalli jars are now displayed in a third-floor “quiet” lounge at the College of Pharmacy. Call 513-558-3784.

In addition to his affection for Cantagalli ceramics, Dr. Fischer had a philosophical side and was known for pithy remarks about his profession. As a tribute, some of his students collected and published scores of the sayings in a little book, “Fischerisms,” that can be viewed at the Medical Heritage Center on the ground floor of Wherry Hall. Among the selections: “A doctor must work 18 hours a day and seven days a week. If you cannot console yourself to this, get out of the profession.” “Let your entrance into the sick room decrease -- not increase -- the irritability of your patient.” “Our profession is the only one which works unceasingly to annihilate itself.” Call the library at 513-558-5120.

Historic papers and books

Neurologist John Steiner examines the world's largest medical book. photo/Dottie Stover

Neurologist John Steiner examines the world's largest medical book. Photo/Dottie Stover

Other prominent physicians left manuscripts that have made UC’s historic library unique. For example, scientists from around the world come to study the papers of Albert Sabin, HonDoc '74, UC researcher who developed the live oral polio vaccine.

Less technically minded visitors may view Sabin artifacts, including drawings from children around the world, on exhibit just inside the entrance of UC’s nearby research facility, the Vontz Center for Molecular Studies.

Among the 35,000 rare and classical volumes in the Health Sciences collection is the world’s largest medical book, “Anatomia Universa” by Paolo Mascagni (1752-1815). One of only a handful of copies in the United States, it boasts original hand-colored illustrations so skillfully done that they seem to be three-dimensional. In addition, when three of the 39- by 27-inch pages are lined up, they reveal the dissection of a life-size male figure.

Anatomia Universa illustrations

Albert B. Sabin Archives

Wartime medals for nurses

Letters and medals photo/Dottie Stover

Letters and medals. Photo/Dottie Stover

The University of Cincinnati’s medical history collection also contains early surgical instruments and physicians’ weathered satchels, as well as the battlefield medical kit, glasses and letters of a Civil War nurse, Benjamin Lisle Asque, Jr. A medic with the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, he wrote poignant letters home to Jefferson, Ohio, relating the soldiers’ health conditions and battle injuries he had treated. He addressed the letters to his wife -- “my ever-dear companion.”

Memorabilia from UC’s wartime nurse-alumni includes military uniforms worn in Korea and the two World Wars, plus awards and medals presented to them during the Spanish-American War. The displays are found in the UC Nursing Library on the second floor of Procter Hall, along with historic syringe sets and first-aid supply kits. A collection of nurse caps, from huge “poofy” styles to tiny, boxy ones, rests in the college’s history room on the fourth floor. Call 513-558-5120 for details.

Powders, pills and whiskey

Glass containers photo/Peter Griga

Antique glass containers. Photo/Peter Griga

An extensive collection of historic items related to medicinal arts is displayed in the UC College of Pharmacy. Several glass-front display cabinets, including one just inside the college entrance and others in the dean’s office nearby, hold mortar and pestle sets in multiple sizes and materials, elaborately engraved prescription forms and antique devices used to hand-manufacture pills and suppositories.

On an upper floor, visitors can view antique glass containers of colorful chemicals, from pastel pink calamine to pale blue fluoride; boxes of homeopathic cures made from wild plum bark, mustard seeds and red clover tops; “desiccated corpus luteum” tablets from the Eli Lily company; and bottles of alcohol-based cure-all potions, such as “Dillingham’s Plant Juice” and “Wheeler’s Vitalixer.” To tour the collections, call 513-558-3784.

Grand Rounds return to hall

On the first floor of University Hospital’s Mont Reid Pavilion, UC physicians have resumed Grand Rounds on Wednesday mornings in a room that is a rarity. The original marble-walled surgical amphitheater is one of only five still in existence in the United States.

Surgical amphitheater photo/Lewis O'Brien, surgical photo

Surgical amphitheater. Photo/Lewis O'Brien, surgical photo

A committee headed by Dr. Jay Johannigman, associate professor and trauma director, is working to update and restore the 1915 teaching space. Acoustic tile and state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment have been installed, and the doctors hope to have the original skylight, closed off for decades, repaired and in use again within the year. Visitors are welcome whenever the amphitheater is not in use. For details, call 513-558-7152.

A number of the Medical Center’s treasures, such as an original, barrel-shaped iron lung that “breathed” for polio victims in the 1950s, are currently in storage but will be displayed again after the MSB renovation is completed. Librarian Doris Haag, manager of the Cincinnati Medical Heritage Center/Health Sciences Library and director of the Nursing Library, is keeping watch over the stored treasures and promises that additional space for exhibits and artifacts is on the way.

Medical Heritage [now Henry R. Winkler Center for the History of the Health Professions] Web site

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