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Alex Beam

A museum for Man’s Greatest Hospital

MGH collection plans to link past and present practices as well as explore what’s ahead in medical innovation

I love unexpected history, in unexpected places. For instance I always regretted that Route 128 and Silicon Valley weren’t more history-minded, until former Digital Equipment Corp. executive Gordon Bell addressed that problem. He and his wife, Gwen, birthed our Computer Museum, which morphed into the bigger-deal Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

In this vein, an interesting specialty museum is about to open in the heart of Boston: The Paul S. Russell, MD, Museum of Medical History and Innovation at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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Russell is a history-minded former chief of surgery at MGH (Man’s Greatest Hospital; somehow I don’t think they’ll devote a special exhibit to Dr. Stephen Bergman’s blasphemous MGH parody, the gajillion-selling novel “The House of God’’) who assembled some affluent donors, such as Sumner Redstone, Nan and Bill Harris of WGBH studio fame, and a couple of Putnams to build the new museum. Dr. Harris, by the way, could have his own special exhibit; he is an inventor and an innovator in hip-replacement surgery.

The Russell is a handsome, four-story, copper-clad building erected on a postage-stamp-size lot on Cambridge Street, in front of the MGH’s massive Yawkey Center for Outpatient Care. The museum was designed by Jane Weinzapfel of Leers Weinzapfel Associates, who also renovated Harvard’s Hasty Pudding theater and built the new Dudley Square police station.

The Russell joins a fascinating universe of medical museums. London alone has more than 20 medical museums, large and small. The Royal College of Surgeons operates two of them, the Hunterian, named after the 18th-century Hunter brothers, and the Wellcome Museum of Anatomy and Pathology, which houses, inter alia, 2,000 specimens of “malformations, injuries, vascular lesions, infections, primary tumors, secondary tumors, and other sundry lesions.’’

In the United States, the Mayo Clinic operates a Heritage Hall, and Case Western Reserve University has the well-known Dittrick Museum, home to Percy Skuy Collection on the History of Contraception. Philadelphia’s College of Physicians, “the birthplace of American medicine,’’ maintains the best-known American collection at the Mutter Museum, where Albert Einstein’s brain is currently on display.

“We won’t be showing body parts,’’ the Russell’s director, Peter Johnson, informed me when we met last week. Imagine my disappointment.

There are a few other famous MGH/Harvard medical center artifacts the Russell won’t be showing, including the 3,000-year-old Theban mummy Padi Hershef, who won’t be moved from his perch inside the hospital’s famous Ether Dome. (You will want to check out Hershef’s Facebook page; MGH docs seem to have plenty of spare time on their hands.) You also won’t find the famous skull of Phineas Gage, whose name appears in Chapter 1 of almost every psychology textbook ever written. A railroad spike shot through Gage’s head, which made him ornery. Gage’s cranium rests at the Warren Anatomical Museum at the Countway Library, also part of the Harvard medical complex.

The Warren Museum is named for Dr. Joseph Warren. No, not the shadowy Masonic graverobber who died at the Battle of Bunker Hill; this is his descendant, a surgeon and cofounder of MGH. The Warren has plenty of cool stuff: the Lowell hip, the subject of a famous 19th-century malpractice case, and plaster skull casts of Felix Mendelssohn and Samuel Coleridge, taken by noted phrenologist Johann Spurzheim. Dr. Warren’s famous North American mastodon, alas, left town years ago and is now at New York’s Museum of Natural History.

It is an inconvenient irony that the MGH founder’s magnificent medical collection ended up across town in Longwood. But Dr. Scott Podolsky, a pediatrician who runs Countway’s Center for the History of Medicine, is pals with the Russell gang, who, frankly, are located in a more accessible part of Boston. “We intend to loan them artifacts,’’ he says.

The Russell has plenty of cool stuff of its own: the original, germ-infested pillow where Dr. Warren laid his patients’ heads during surgery. (It was said that Warren could amputate a leg in 40 seconds.) The museum also owns a shock-producing Patent Magneto-Electric Machine, known as the “quackery machine.’’ “The patient grasped the two [metal] electrodes, or they were pressed to the affected parts of the body,’’ a catalog explains, “while the physician turned the crank producing a shock and hopefully a cure.’’

The Russell’s true ambition is to link past practice to current practice, with exhibits organized around such themes as diagnosis, surgery, training, and pain. “We hope people visiting the museum will come away with a general sense of past and current medical practice, as well as some inklings of where medicine is headed in the future,’’ director Johnson says.

Check it out when it opens in April. It’s free and open to the public.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.
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