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Morbid Road Trip: Medical Oddities Around the World

In our last two macabre getaways, we planned an almost-cross-country trip to see various items tied to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and took in the best of America’s medical oddities. Today, we go worldwide in a quest for more cadavers, gore and anatomical monstrosities outside the US. All aboard!

Museum Vrolik - Amsterdam, Netherlands

Originally the private collection of 19th century father and son anatomists Gerardus and Willem Vrolik and now housed at the University of Amsterdam, this is the world’s largest collection of human mutants. The museum has some 10,000 preserved anatomical specimens - including human cyclopses, conjoined twins and massively deformed fetuses - plus animal skeletons, anatomical models and reconstructions of various genetic mishaps. Some are hundreds of years old, some just a few decades. One of the museum’s highlights is the so-called Hovius Cabinet, an 18th-century display case containing some of the hundreds of disease- and defect-ravaged bones and skulls collected by Dutch physician Jacob Hovius. Besides the bones, the ornate case features a painted portrait of its owner and a dedication plaque that reads, “This is Hovius’ gift, which shows the healing power possessed still by nature when art succumbs.”
Image via the Museum Vrolik web site

Meguro Parasitological Museum - Tokyo, Japan

Billed as the world’s only parasite museum, this collection runs the gamut from a simple map of Japan’s parasite distribution to the world’s largest tapeworm. Among the museum's holdings are a dolphin’s parasite-ridden stomach, a turtle’s head with a parasite bursting through it, and photos of a poor guy’s testicles grotesquely distended by a tropical bug. All together, there are some 45,000 preserved parasite specimens, models and photos. The star of the show, though, is an enormous specimen of the tapeworm Diphyllobothrium nihonkaiense. Pulled from the gut of a Japanese man who is thought to have gotten it from eating trout, the beast measures 28.5 feet long. If the worm itself isn’t enough, there’s also a rope of identical length and girth that visitors are encouraged to play with to really get a sense of the thing’s size.
Photo by Flickr user andresmh

Cesare Lobrosos's Museum of Criminal Anthropology - Turin, Italy

Criminologist Cesare Lombroso believed that he had discovered the true “scientific” nature of crime. Criminality, he thought, was biology as destiny, and certain biological features like cranial anomalies, large jaws, low sloping foreheads, high cheekbones, patchy facial hair and long arms all contributed to deviant behavior. As part of his work on his theories, Lombroso amassed a huge collection of anatomical specimens, crime scene evidence and criminological artifacts. Lombroso started holding public exhibitions of his pieces in 1884, and parts of the collection have been displayed at museums around Italy since then. The bulk of it now resides at the Turin museum, including hundreds of skulls that once belonged to criminals and madmen, murder weapons, the old Gallows of Turin (retired in 1865) and, to “top it all off,” the preserved head of Lombroso himself.
Image via the museum's web site

“The Anatomical Machines” at  Museo Cappella Sansevero - Naples, Italy

In the underground chamber of this chapel, otherwise well known for its marble statues and reliefs, are two bizarre figures. They’re the skeletons of a man and a woman standing upright, encased in glass, with their circulatory systems almost perfectly intact. The Machines are the work of Giuseppe Salerno, an 18th century physician, and while there are notaries’ deeds and credit notes detailing the business side of their creation, no one knows how Salerno was able to preserve them so well. The Machines have fueled centuries of legend surrounding an old Prince of Sansevero. The local folklore has it that he was a member of a secret society and a wizard that could create blood out of nothing, and that the Machines are just two of the many people he killed while carrying out his dark experiments and black magic.
Image via the museum's web site

Siriraj Medical Museum - Bangkok, Thailand

Housed in Thailand’s oldest hospital, the place where the King goes when he falls sick, the “Museum of Death,” (as it's known to the locals) is actually comprised of six different museums focusing on pathology, forensics, the history of Thai medicine, parasitology, anatomy and prehistory. Among the museums’ more macabre holdings are the mummified remains of modern Thailand’s first serial killer, the cannibal Si Ouey Sae Urng. There's also a variety of preserved organs and fetuses, parasitic worms, a two-and-a-half-foot-wide elephantiasis-afflicted scrotum, and the head of a gunshot victim, neatly sawed in half to display the bullet’s path.
Postcard image via the museum's web site

Musée Fragonard - Maisons-Alfort, France


Photo by Flickr user Marc Kjerland

Four rooms in one of the world’s oldest veterinary schools, the École Nationale Vétérinaire d'Alfort, house the grisly teaching tools of its former teacher, anatomist Honoré Fragonard. While many écorchés (“flayed figures” depicting the muscles without skin) of his day were merely paintings or sculptures, Fragonard created his own from actual cadavers. Out of 700 bodies that he flayed, only 21 remain today and they’re all here. The highlight is probably “The Horseman of the Apocalypse.” Based on the Albrecht Durer woodcut, it consists of a man riding a horse (both flayed), surrounded by a bunch of human fetuses riding sheep and horse fetuses. There are also flayed human fetuses dancing a jig, plus weird veterinary specimens like like two-headed calf, a 10-legged sheep, a one-eyed horse and other animals with more or less body parts than there are supposed to be.

Moulagenmuseum - Zurich, Switzerland


Image via the museum's web site

The Moulagenmuseum specializes in 3-D wax models of body parts. Boring. These aren’t just any old body parts, though. These model the effects of flesh ravaged by disfiguring diseases. You’ve got your leprosy, your smallpox, your necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating bacteria syndrome), your syphillis, and a host of lesser rashes and fungal problems (like athlete’s foot). Unfortunately, the models are all behind glass, so you can’t get a full hands-on sensory experience.

Kunstkamera - St. Petersburg, Russia

Russia’s oldest museum, founded in St. Petersburg in 1727, started out as Peter the Great’s private collection. His diverse “cabinet of curiosities” featured a range of items from deformed fetuses and skulls to old, bizarre medical instruments. In his effort to modernize Russia, Peter gave his collection of diseased and abnormal anatomy a public home so that people could confront these “monsters” in a scientific way instead of falling back on superstition. In the 19th century, Kunstkamera’s collection was dispersed to various museums around the empire. Most of the grislier items are still in the original Kunstkammer Building, which now hosts the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. The museum’s second floor contains the collection of preparations Peter bought from the Dutch anatomist Fredrick Ruysch, which is cataloged online. The museum’s do-not-miss item is probably the head of one Willem Mons. Mons was the brother of Peter’s mistress, and was hired to be the private secretary to his wife Catherine. He was eventually arrested and charged with embezzling money from the government, but the real reason for his punishment has long been rumored to be his affair with the empress. Either way, he was publicly drawn and quartered, and his head, which was decapitated and supposedly given to the empress to contemplate, is still preserved in alcohol at the museum today.

Museum of Human Disease - Sydney, Australia

Founded by pathology professor Donald Wilhelm at the University of New South Wales in the 1960s for use by medical students and pathologists, the Museum of Human Disease didn’t open to the general public until 2009. The museum has some 2,700 specimens of diseased human tissue, from bits of skin to hearts to lungs, all of them enlarged, malformed, blackened, cancerous or ravaged by disease in some way. The parts themselves are preserved in formalin, and each specimen is also accompanied by a clinical history and a description of its abnormality, including an explanation of the microscopic-level changes that occured. Its curators note one specimen as being particularly eye-catching: a leg that appears to have had gangrene, but was actually stricken with hemangiosarcoma, a fast-growing, highly invasive cancer of the blood vessels.
Photo by Instagram user Sabrina M. (@s__m__)

Surgeons’ Hall - Edinburgh, Scotland

The museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh has three permanent collections, the History of Surgery Museum, the Dental Collection and the Surgeons' Hall Pathology Museum. One of the grisliest items is not in the pathology exhibit, as you might expect, but the historical one. There, they have a tattered book, no larger than a man’s hand and bound in what appears to unremarkable dark brown leather with faded gold lettering. Upon closer inspection, though, one sees that the faint letters read “EXECUTED 28 JAN 1829,” giving a clue to the wholly remarkable source of the “leather.” The book is bound in the flesh of William Burke, the notorious murderer who killed so he could sell bodies to the anatomist Robert Knox. During their trial, Burke’s accomplice William Hare turned on him in exchange for immunity. Burke was found guilty, hanged, dissected and had his flesh turned into a unique, Necronomicon-esque book cover.
Photo by Wikimedia user Kim Traynor

All right, same deal as last time: my knowledge is not encyclopedic, so which weird, foreign medical museums or exhibits have I missed?

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NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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Animals
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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