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New Beacon Hill museum will showcase MGH medical innovations

Posted by Sara Brown  February 23, 2011 01:02 PM

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(Photo provided by MGH)

A rendering of the museum on Cambridge Street

In October 1846, a crowd filled Massachusetts General Hospital’s surgical amphitheater, nicknamed the “Ether Dome,” to watch William T. G. Morton, a Boston dentist, and surgeon John Collins Warren perform the first public demonstration of surgery using an anesthetic.

The audience was amazed when the patient, Edward G. Abbott, did not express pain during the surgery to remove a jaw tumor, and the demonstration “ushered in the era of pain-free surgery,” according to the hospital’s account.

The Ether Dome—the site of 8,000 surgeries between 1821 and 1868, according to the hospital—is now a teaching hall and historical landmark, but the story of this and other once-new medical advancements will provide material for the hospital’s upcoming Paul S. Russell, MD Museum of Medical History and Innovation.

The Beacon Hill museum, which is slated to open in December, will house two floors of exhibits featuring models, displays, and photographs “tracing the trajectory and evolution of medical practice and patient care,” said Peter Johnson, the museum’s director.

According to Mass General, the ground floor of the building will feature “compelling visuals, artifacts, and current and historical stories illustrating the hospital’s ongoing innovation and achievements that have changed the practice of medicine throughout the world.”

The second-floor gallery will have changing exhibits and lectures highlighting revolutions in medicine, like the progression from hand-drawn medical illustrations to diagnostic radiology. With sufficient funding, the museum also will have a roof deck garden for lunches and receptions.

The museum has been in the making for several years, thanks to an MGH history committee that long hoped to make the hospital’s history and artifacts available to a wider audience.

Plans to open the museum were put into high-gear with museum planners realized “there were people who wanted to support a museum,” Johnson said. While he couldn’t say how much the museum would cost, Johnson said that the museum would be built with private fundraising, and not hospital funds.

The museum’s planned December opening will likely be the final event in a year-long celebration of the hospital’s bicentennial, and the story of Massachusetts General itself, which was built when “a general hospital was a new invention,” will be one of the museum’s topics said Johnson.

Back in 1811, when a group of Bostonians petitioned the state general court to create Massachusetts General Hospital, a general hospital itself was a new invention, Johnson said. Philadelphia and New York housed the only two such hospitals in the country, and while well-off or middle class residents had doctors visit their homes, poorer citizens had few options for medial treatment.

“The poor went to an alms house, or got no treatment at all,” Johnson said. The founders of the hospital even asked wealthier citizens not to seek treatment at the hospital, he added.

A so-called circular letter, a petition for community support for the hospital, led to enough funds being raised for a charter in 1811, Johnson said. The War of 1812 led to a delay in the hospital’s construction, though, and the Bullfinch Building, the hospital’s flagship structure, was completed in 1823, though the building was completed enough by 1821 to admit its first patient.

While copies historical artifacts like the “circular letter,” the original petition for community support for the hospital, will be part of the museum’s displays, what the museum is “really meant to look at and make known is that this hospital was at the forefront of innovation from the very beginning,” Johnson said.

In this regard, he added, the museum’s shifting rotation of displays will focus as much on the present as the past.

For example, the Bulfinch Building, the hospital’s flagship structure that was completed in 1823 (the War of 1812 delayed construction) was once an example of modern architecture. Back then, Johnson said,” nobody knew what a hospital looked like.” Though the hospital served Boston’s poorest people, the Bullfinch Building, designed by Charles Bulfinch, was built in the “newer style,” with an internal heating system and toilets, a modern innovations at that time.

The museum will trace the trajectory of buildings like the Bulfinch to the Lunder Building, which is slated to open next summer. This building houses today’s newest technology, with a layout that is “based on the newest understanding of what are the best practices,” Johnson said, much like the Bulfinch Building back in the early 19th century.

The 8,000 square-foot museum is being built at the corner of North Grove Street and Cambridge Street, on an open plot of land next to the hospital’s Resident Physician house, a 1891 building that once housed the on-site physician who saw every patient who walked through the hospital’s doors.

The home, which has been moved twice, will house museum offices and public parts of the hospital’s archival library.

For Johnson, who was once director of exhibits at the New England Aquarium and the vice-president of exhibits at the Museum of Science, learning about MGH and medical history has “been a revelation.”

“It’s fascinating, once you start reading about what was known and not known in 1811, and tracing 200 years of history,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for me.”

Like medicine, the museum will constantly change, Johnson said, with new programming, conferences, talks and presentations keeping up with current events.

“We will keep adapting,” Johnson said.

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