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Welcome to Club Med
By Sarah Sullivan
In the basement of the University of Virginia’s Claude Moore Medical Library, past the silently cramming students and thick tomes of medical texts, is one of the university’s hidden treasures: the medical history museum. In a school known for its collection of historical objects pertaining to Charlottesville and Thomas Jefferson, the museum offers a refreshing array of exhibits ranging from ancient surgical instruments to Renaissance anatomical texts. For the medical or historical enthusiast, it’s genuinely worth a visit—most importantly because you can directly read the medical texts.
A little somethin' from Claude Moore—the UVA Medical School Class of 1867
The museum focuses primarily on historical medical texts, including several late medieval texts published as early as 1493. Several of the texts are small, while others are massive bound works two feet long weighing in at over eighteen pounds. One is a copy of Andreas Vesalius’s groundbreaking work on human anatomy; another deals with Elizabethan-era methods of handling plague.
Along with texts, the museum contains numerous medical artifacts. There are several exact replicas of ancient Roman obstetrical tools, which were procured by UVA staff during WWII and oddly resemble modern birth tools used today. One of the most sobering items in the museum is an early twentieth-century iron lung, preserved from the days of terrifying polio outbreaks that left children dependent on mechanical ventilation.
And it wouldn’t be a UVA museum without a terrific collection of local medical history. A recent exhibit focused on 19th century price fixing among Virginia doctors in 1848, which displayed the blatant racism evident at the time; delivery of an African-American baby cost significantly less than that of a Caucasian one. Another exhibit focused on nineteenth-century medical springs, believed to cure a variety of ailments. Yet another nineteenth-century text chronicles the daily medical log of a doctor who regularly used bloodletting, purgatives, and questionable medicines when treating patients.
There aren’t many museums focusing solely on medicine; while many Virginia museums include early or Civil War medicine in their exhibits, it’s tough to find somewhere anywhere that focuses exclusively on the history of patient treatment. So if you’re ever looking for a medical museum that spans the millennia, give UVA’s a try.
The UVA Claude Moore Health Sciences Library historical exhibits are open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.