On a sunny autumn day in 1846, light streams in through the opening in the dome of the Bulfinch operating theater at Massachusetts General Hospital. Doctors in frock coats surround a patient who is undergoing removal of a congenital jaw tumor as he reclines in a chair against a pillow. Amid skepticism, Wellesley dentist Dr. William Morton asks the patient to inhale from a sponge soaked in ether. It is an attempt to demonstrate the usefulness of a new concept: anesthesia. As the surgery proceeds, the patient feels no pain. Astonished, observer and chief surgeon Dr. John Collins Warren declares, “Gentlemen, this is no humbug!”
In April, a new museum opened with the purpose of showcasing just such medical advances. Although a hospital is an unlikely spot for tourists, as part of its 200th anniversary, MGH decided that the wealth of medical history stored in its archives should be made available onsite to all. “There is a lineage between that first ether inhaler and ‘smart pumps,’ which now control the administration of many medications during an operation and a patient’s recovery,” says Patricia Austen, a member of the MGH History Committee, who has been involved in the museum’s development. “These sequential devices can now be part of an exhibit focusing on our evolving understanding of and ability to control pain.”
With the help of many philanthropists including MGH doctors, a narrow strip of land on Cambridge Street at the corner of North Grove Street was carved out for the glass and copper-clad building, which has been drawing the attention of passing motorists. The Paul S. Russell, MD Museum of Medical History and Innovation (named for the MGH transplantation pioneer) is the symbolic “front door” to the entire hospital complex, a gesture to visitors that they are particularly welcome, confirmed by free admission. Five hundred people toured the facility in its first week.
Austen explains that the words “history and innovation” were carefully chosen to be interpreted in the museum in a multitude of ways. First, the unusual copper covering of the building — a 2012 innovation of chief architect Jane Weinzapfel — also pays homage to a piece of MGH’s oldest history: the copper dome of the original Bulfinch building (viewable behind the Wang Ambulatory Care wing). Next is the contemporary feel of openness upon entering. The long and narrow three-story space, even on a dreary day that obscures the John Hancock tower in the distance, brings in the outdoors through dozens of panels of glass. Their clean and soaring angles complement the muted patina of the antique wooden instruments on display — innovation and history, once again.
The exhibits themselves are even arranged to juxtapose the historical and the cutting edge; displays from medicine’s early days stand beside interactive videos on the latest medical advances. Among the former are:
■ A small statue of Florence Nightingale given by her to Mary Parkman, a founder of the MGH School of Nursing, on an 1872 visit.
■ Early surgical instruments such as bistouries (a type of scalpel) and forceps with tortoise-shell handles from circa 1855.
■ A tonsillotome, also known as the “tonsil guillotine,” for the removal of tonsils — a procedure commonly performed in the late 19th and 20th centuries.
■ A portable wooden medicine chest from 1850 featuring hinged shelves and compartmentalized drawers for the potions, dishes, and implements used to mix prescriptions. The traveling kit, which belonged to MGH surgeon Dr. Samuel Cabot, was a 19th-century fixture, as patients, especially those well off, much preferred in-home treatment.
■ The original 1846 “ether” inhaler from that first successful demonstration of anesthesia under the Bulfinch dome. (Now called the “Ether Dome,” it, too, is open to visitors, where the operating theater, a National Historic Monument, remains intact, and a large oil painting details the momentous event.)
Showcasing today’s medical innovations are a full-wall mural of a contemporary MGH operating room; a video on “targeted” medical therapy of tumors, organs, or single genes; an infant’s incubator that MGH has invented for developing parts of the world, featuring readily available components such as auto headlights for easy repairs; and a “deconstructing diabetes” display that highlights MGH’s three-decade-long participation in a study to curb the alarming expanse of a disease that now affects 26 million people.
In addition to the several dozen exhibits on the street level, the upper floor offers a collection of oil portraits of prominent medical figures that will help link names and faces — such as Gray and Warren — to the familiar MGH buildings that honor them. For the weary visitor or anxious patient, planners included a serene rooftop garden oasis to provide respite from the surrounding bustle.
When exiting the museum, after witnessing the extraordinary medical advances made in the past 200 years, you just might find yourself echoing Warren’s, “Gentlemen, this is no humbug!”
Paul S. Russell, MD Museum of Medical History and Innovation 2 North Grove St., Boston (corner of Cambridge Street), 617-724-8009, www.massgeneral
.org/museum. Weekdays 9 a.m.-
5 p.m., free. Half-block from Charles-MGH MBTA Red Line stop.