Dittrick Medical Museum: Your ℞ for a Healthy Curiosity

Science, technology, history and sociology interlock like the parts of an expensive microscope at Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum, a fascinating repository of more than 150,000 artifacts from our medical past on the Case Western Reserve University campus.

With roots reaching back to 1898, the Dittrick collections are displayed on the second and third floors of the Allen Memorial Medical Library, a grand, neoclassical building opened in 1926 on the corner of Euclid Avenue and Adelbert. With their marble floors, ornate plaster ceilings, intricately carved woodwork and hand-painted “wallpaper,” the second-floor reading rooms make an impressive backdrop for medical objects and oddities that range from a replica Roman speculum (circa 79 AD) to pharmacy jars, lancets, and scores of beautiful antique microscopes.

Upstairs on the third floor, museum visitors can peruse extensive gallery exhibits on the history of birth and birth control; stroll through the Blaufox Hall of Diagnostic Instruments; and peek into recreated doctors’ offices from 1875 and 1930.

Smaller, single-case exhibits focus on topics ranging from terrors like smallpox and diphtheria epidemics to Cleveland’s own John Spenzer, a brilliant forensic toxicologist whose crime-solving approach was far ahead of his time.

Cleveland Dittrick Museum

Out of sight but available to students and researchers by appointment, the Dittrick’s rare-books collection is home to the Sigmund Freud Collection: more than 500 volumes of historic works in psychoanalysis and psychiatry, including a rare first edition of 1900’s Die Traumdeutung (The Interpretation of Dreams) wherein Freud introduces his theory of the unconscious with regard to dream interpretation. In addition, the museum’s archives contain extensive correspondence between Charles Darwin and his contemporaries, written between 1848 and 1882.

And thanks to the innovative partnership between Judson and CWRU, the Dittrick’s resources, including group tours, are free and available to members of Judson Park and Judson Manor.

While the Dittrick’s collections are vast and compelling, chief curator Dr. Jim Edmonson and research associate and public engagement fellow Dr. Brandy Schillace offer several “don’t miss” recommendations for first-time visitors.

The Percy Skuy Collection on Contraception Through the Ages

CWRU Dittrick gallery

Comprising more than 1,100 artifacts related to birth control, the Percy Skuy Collection is the largest of its type in the world. When the museum acquired the collection in 2004, it became a “game changer,” says Dr. Edmonson. “Prior to this time, this was more a medical museum, aimed at the medical community. This collection caused us to pivot and become more of a layman’s museum, where people can explore medical issues in a larger context of history and social forces.”

Reconceiving Birth: Our Shared Entrance to the World Stage

Judson CWRU partnership

Documenting the ways in which birth has changed over time, this exhibit not only traces the increased understanding of female reproductive anatomy, but also reveals the process whereby birth moved from a natural occurrence overseen by female midwives to, as the exhibit notes, “a potentially pathological event requiring skilled management” by mostly male physicians. “This has a detailed Cleveland component,” Dr. Edmonson says. “In the early 1900s, 65 to 70 percent of all births in the city were handled at home by midwives. By 1940, that had dropped to just three percent. 1930 was a watershed year, when for the first time more than 50 percent of births were in hospitals.”

The M. Donald Blaufox Hall of Diagnostic Instruments

Dittrick Museum Cleveland

“At one time, you could get a diagnosis by letter, from a physician who had never even met you!” says Dr. Edmonson. “That changed over the course of the 19th century, particularly with the advent of the stethoscope in 1816. The art of diagnosis accelerated pretty rapidly after that.” The collection contains scores of stethoscopes, blood-pressure measurement devices, and other antique diagnostic instruments; at the time of its donation to the Dittrick Museum in 2008, it ranked as the most extensive and comprehensive of its kind in private hands. Together with the Dittrick’s own collection, it adds up to what Dr. Edmonson calls “the largest collection of diagnostic instruments in the country.”

John Spenzer: Cleveland Expert on Blood and Poison

This permanent exhibit takes a look at one of the 19th century’s leading forensic toxicologists, John George Spenzer, who, according to Dr. Schillace, “was a bit of a savant,” earning his medical degree at 16, his Ph.D. two years later, and then going on to serve as a fellow of the College of Surgeons in Paris before returning to Cleveland. “Although he helped solve lots of murders having to do with poison, he interested himself in all aspects of a crime,” she says. “He was very well-rounded in his approach to forensics, before this was a commonplace occurrence.”

While the exhibits are engaging and the artifacts prove thought provoking, Dr. Edmonson says the best reason to visit the Dittrick is simply this: It is endlessly interesting. “I’ve been here for 35 years,” he says. “And there’s not a single day I come to work that I don’t learn something new.”

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