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Indy museum highlights bizarre evolution of modern medicine

Indy museum highlights bizarre evolution of modern medicine

INDIANAPOLIS — Back in the days before the “Moral Treatment Method,” patients in mental asylums were manacled, chained to walls or furniture, and even kept in cages.

A card on an Indiana Medical History Museum exhibit notes:

“Most people, even doctors, blamed mental illness on moral failings, lack of faith or even demonic possession. … They were usually malnourished, beaten, denied clothing and blankets. In short, they were viewed and treated as less than human. Rather than treating patients, these asylums merely housed the undesirable.”

The Moral Treatment Method changed those practices. It's just one of the starting points from which exhibits and staff help trace the sometimes bizarre evolution of modern medicine at the Old Pathology Building on the grounds of what was once the Central State Hospital for the Insane.

As late as 1956, Indiana University medical students sat in the pathology department's amphitheater for neuro/psychiatry lectures. The building's laboratories closed in 1968, and the museum opened in 1969. Its exhibits are a unique collection of Believe It or Not-type artifacts and aren't-you-glad-we-live-today revelations from tour guides.

The 1896 building, which is open for general public tours three days a week, barely had 5,000 visitors in 2014, but drew 8,200 last year, Executive Director Sarah Halter said.

Just off the amphitheater, which is furnished with donors' “endowed chairs” (the four legs and a seat variety, not teaching positions), is the anatomical museum with dozens of specimen jars displaying a syphilitic liver and tumors, among other formaldehyde-filled fascinations.

What at first glance appears to be picture of a tree in a case hanging from a wall is actually all the nerves in an arm, which took 200 hours for a student to extract and label. A large glass case contains two headless skeletons, which earned the museum a mention in the book, “Gross America.”

The morgue preparation room is off limits since it now serves as the staff's lunchroom. But the morgue itself reveals the hole-riddled wooden examination table (allowing blood and bodily fluids to flow off the surface) and a curious display of safety pins, coins and partial dentures that doctors took from the stomachs of autopsied cadavers.

Spoiler alert: When the guide asks what an incubator-appearing device is in the corner of the room, the correct answer is an infant polio victim's iron lung. The guide also points out that the longest anyone lived in an iron lung was 60 years. Polio has since been virtually eradicated.

The reception room boasts a display touting one of Central State Hospital's more renowned patients, Riah Fagan Cox, author Kurt Vonnegut's mother-in-law, whose book, “I Remember Jones,” chronicled her two stays there and offered “a chilling description of electro-convulsive therapy.”

ECT, which replaced hydro therapy, actually induced “a state of euphoria,” said Melissa Dombrowski, a history student volunteer tour guide.

Pictures of a “Gibson girl” nurse prompted Dombrowski's observation that a change in Edwardian-era fashion was a medical “breakthrough.” Ankle-high skirts prevented germs from being dragged from one ward to another on floor-length dresses. Tuberculosis, in particular, was spread that way, she noted.

A hand-cranked centrifuge was used in the clinical laboratory when blood specimens were pulled from an old-fashion ice box. The lab's distiller, hanging from the ceiling, was regularly checked by federal agents during Prohibition, Dombrowski said, to ensure it did not contain illicit alcohol.

Hands-on exhibits include microscope slides and photomicrograph viewings.

Visitors also can take a self-guided tour of the gardens outside, which feature such plants as sassafras, catnip, periwinkle and corn, among others — all with cards explaining their medicinal applications.

Horseradish root “gives off a heat that goes straight up the nose and sinuses.” Thus it was called “stingnose.” It was rubbed on arthritic joints and pressed against the forehead to relieve headache.

The museum at 3045 W. Vermont St. is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Tours begin on the hour with the last at 3 p.m. Group tours of 10 or more are available on Wednesdays through Saturdays by appointment only. Call 317-635-7329 or email Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for university students with ID and $3 for children younger than 18.


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