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Morbid Road Trip: Medical Oddities Around the World

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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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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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6 Radiant Facts About Irène Joliot-Curie
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though her accomplishments are often overshadowed by those of her parents, the elder daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie was a brilliant researcher in her own right.

1. SHE WAS BORN TO, AND FOR, GREATNESS.

A black and white photo of Irene and Marie Curie in the laboratory in 1925.
Irène and Marie in the laboratory, 1925.
Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

Irène’s birth in Paris in 1897 launched what would become a world-changing scientific dynasty. A restless Marie rejoined her loving husband in the laboratory shortly after the baby’s arrival. Over the next 10 years, the Curies discovered radium and polonium, founded the science of radioactivity, welcomed a second daughter, Eve, and won a Nobel Prize in Physics. The Curies expected their daughters to excel in their education and their work. And excel they did; by 1925, Irène had a doctorate in chemistry and was working in her mother’s laboratory.

2. HER PARENTS' MARRIAGE WAS A MODEL FOR HER OWN.

Like her mother, Irène fell in love in the lab—both with her work and with another scientist. Frédéric Joliot joined the Curie team as an assistant. He and Irène quickly bonded over shared interests in sports, the arts, and human rights. The two began collaborating on research and soon married, equitably combining their names and signing their work Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie.

3. SHE AND HER HUSBAND WERE AN UNSTOPPABLE PAIR.

Black and white photo of Irène and Fréderic Joliot-Curie working side by side in their laboratory.
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Their passion for exploration drove them ever onward into exciting new territory. A decade of experimentation yielded advances in several disciplines. They learned how the thyroid gland absorbs radioiodine and how the body metabolizes radioactive phosphates. They found ways to coax radioactive isotopes from ordinarily non-radioactive materials—a discovery that would eventually enable both nuclear power and atomic weaponry, and one that earned them the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935.

4. THEY FOUGHT FOR JUSTICE AND PEACE.

The humanist principles that initially drew Irène and Frédéric together only deepened as they grew older. Both were proud members of the Socialist Party and the Comité de Vigilance des Intellectuels Antifascistes (Vigilance Committee of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals). They took great pains to keep atomic research out of Nazi hands, sealing and hiding their research as Germany occupied their country, Irène also served as undersecretary of state for scientific research of the Popular Front government.

5. SHE WAS NOT CONTENT WITH THE STATUS QUO.

Irène eventually scaled back her time in the lab to raise her children Hélène and Pierre. But she never slowed down, nor did she stop fighting for equality and freedom for all. Especially active in women’s rights groups, she became a member of the Comité National de l'Union des Femmes Françaises and the World Peace Council.

6. SHE WORKED HERSELF TO DEATH.

Irène’s extraordinary life was a mirror of her mother’s. Tragically, her death was, too. Years of watching radiation poisoning and cancer taking their toll on Marie never dissuaded Irène from her work. In 1956, dying of leukemia, she entered the Curie Hospital, where she followed her mother’s luminous footsteps into the great beyond.

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ETH Zurich
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Medicine
This Soft Artificial Heart May One Day Shorten the Heart Transplant List
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ETH Zurich

If the heart in the Functional Materials Laboratory at ETH Zurich University were in a patient in an operating room, its vital signs would not be good. In fact, it would be in heart failure. Thankfully, it's not in a patient—and it's not even real. This heart is made of silicone.

Suspended in a metal frame and connected by tubes to trays of water standing in for blood, the silicone heart pumps water at a beat per second—a serious athlete's resting heart rate—in an approximation of the circulatory system. One valve is leaking, dripping onto the grate below, and the water bins are jerry-rigged with duct tape. If left to finish out its life to the final heartbeat, it would last for about 3000 beats before it ruptured. That's about 30 minutes—not long enough to finish an episode of Grey's Anatomy

Nicolas Cohrs, a bioengineering Ph.D. student from the university, admits that the artificial heart is usually in better shape. The one he holds in his hands—identical to the first—feels like taut but pliable muscle, and is intact and dry. He'd hoped to demonstrate a new and improved version of the heart, but that one is temporarily lost, likely hiding in a box somewhere at the airport in Tallinn, Estonia, where the researchers recently attended a symposium.

Taking place over the past three years, the experimental research is a part of Zurich Heart, a project involving 17 researchers from multiple institutions, including ETH, the University of Zurich, University Hospital of Zurich, and the German Heart Institute in Berlin, which has the largest artificial heart program in Europe.

A BRIDGE TO TRANSPLANT—OR TO DEATH

Heart failure occurs when the heart cannot pump enough blood and oxygen to support the organs; common causes are coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. It's a global pandemic, threatening 26 million people worldwide every year. More than a quarter of them are in the U.S. alone, and the numbers are rising.

It's a life-threatening disease, but depending on the severity of the condition at the time of diagnosis, it's not necessarily an immediate death sentence. About half of the people in the U.S. diagnosed with the disease die within five years. Right now in the U.S., there are nearly 4000 people on the national heart transplant list, but they're a select few; it's estimated that upwards of 100,000 people need a new heart. Worldwide, demand for a new heart greatly outpaces supply, and many people die waiting for one.

That's why Cohrs, co-researcher Anastasios Petrou, and their colleagues are attempting to create an artificial heart modeled after each patient's own heart that would, ideally, last for the rest of a person's life.

Mechanical assistance devices for failing hearts exist, but they have serious limitations. Doctors treating heart failure have two options: a pump placed next to the heart, generally on the left side, that pumps the blood for the heart (what's known as a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD), or a total artificial heart (TAH). There have been a few total artificial hearts over the years, and at least four others are in development right now in Europe and the U.S. But only one currently has FDA approval and CE marking (allowing its use in European Union countries): the SynCardia total artificial heart. It debuted in the early '90s, and since has been implanted in nearly 1600 people worldwide.

While all implants come with side effects, especially when the immune system grows hostile toward a foreign object in the body, a common problem with existing total artificial hearts is that they're composed of hard materials, which can cause blood to clot. Such clots can lead to thrombosis and strokes, so anyone with an artificial heart has to take anticoagulants. In fact, Cohrs tells Mental Floss, patients with some sort of artificial heart implant—either a LVAD or a TAH—die more frequently from a stroke or an infection than they do from the heart condition that led to the implant. Neurological damage and equipment breakdown are risky side effects as well.

These complications mean that total artificial hearts are "bridges"—either to a new heart, or to death. They're designed to extend the life of a critically ill patient long enough to get on (or to the top of) the heart transplant list, or, if they're not a candidate for transplant, to make the last few years of a person's life more functional. A Turkish patient currently holds the record for the longest time living with a SynCardia artificial heart: The implant has been in his chest for five years. Most TAH patients live at least one year, but survival rates drop off after that.

The ETH team set out to make an artificial heart that would be not a bridge, but a true replacement. "When we heard about these problems, we thought about how we can make an artificial heart that doesn't have side effects," he recalls.

USING AN ANCIENT TECHNIQUE TO MAKE A MODERN MARVEL

Using common computer assisted design (CAD) software, they designed an ersatz organ composed of soft material that hews closely to the composition, form, and function of the human heart. "Our working hypothesis is that when you have such a device which mimics the human heart in function and form, you will have less side effects," Cohrs says.

To create a heart, "we take a CT scan of a patient, then put it into a computer file and design the artificial heart around it in close resemblance to the patient's heart, so it always fits inside [the body]," Cohrs says.

But though it's modeled on a patient's heart and looks eerily like one, it's not identical to the real organ. For one thing, it can't move on its own, so the team had to make some modifications. They omitted the upper chambers, called atria, which collect and store blood, but included the lower chambers, called ventricles, which pump blood. In a real heart, the left and right sides are separated by the septum. Here, the team replaced the septum with an expansion chamber that is inflated and deflated with pressurized air. This action mimics heart muscle contractions that push blood from the heart.

The next step was to 3D-print a negative mold of the heart in ABS, a thermoplastic commonly used in 3D printing. It takes about 40 hours on the older-model 3D printers they have in the lab. They then filled this mold with the "heart" material—initially silicone—and let it cure for 36 hours, first at room temperature and then in an oven kept at a low temperature (about 150°F). The next day, they bathed it in a solvent of acetone, which dissolved the mold but left the printed heart alone. This process is essentially lost-wax casting, a technique used virtually unchanged for the past 4000 years to make metal objects, especially bronze. It takes about four days.

The resulting soft heart weighs about 13 ounces—about one-third more than an average adult heart (about 10 ounces). If implanted in a body, it would be sutured to the valves, arteries, and veins that bring blood through the body. Like existing ventricular assist devices and total artificial hearts on the market, it would be powered by a portable pneumatic driver worn externally by the patient.

FROM 3000 TO 1 MILLION HEARTBEATS

In April 2016, they did a feasibility test to see if their silicone organ could pump blood like a real heart. First they incorporated state-of-the-art artificial valves used every day in heart surgeries around the world. These would direct the flow of blood. Then, collaborating with a team of mechanical engineers from ETH, they placed the heart in a hybrid mock circulation machine, which measures and simulates the human cardiovascular system. "You can really measure the relevant data without having to put your heart into an animal," says Cohrs.

Here's what the test looked like.

"Our results were very nice," Cohrs says. "When you look at the pressure waveform in the aorta, it really looked like the pressure waveform from the human heart, so that blood flow is very comparable to the blood flow from a real human heart."

Their results were published earlier this year in the journal Artificial Organs.

But less promising was the number of heartbeats the heart lasted before rupturing under stress. (On repeated tests, the heart always ruptured in the same place: a weak point between the expansion chamber and the left ventricle where the membrane was apparently too thin.) With the average human heart beating 2.5 billion times in a lifetime, 3000 heartbeats wouldn't get a patient far.

But they're making progress. Since then, they've switched the heart material from silicone to a high-tech polymer. The latest version of the heart—one of which was stuck in that box in the Tallinn airport—lasts for 1 million heartbeats. That's an exponential increase from 3000—but it's still only about 10 days' worth of life.

Right now, the heart costs around $400 USD to produce, "but when you want to do it under conditions where you can manufacture a device where it can be implanted into a body, it will be much more expensive," Cohrs says.

The researchers know they're far from having produced an implantable TAH; this soft heart represents a new concept for future artificial heart development that could one day lead to transplant centers using widely available, easy-to-use design software and commercially available 3D-printers to create a personalized heart for each patient. This kind of artificial heart would be not a bridge to transplantation or, in a few short years, death, but one that would take a person through many years of life.

"My personal goal is to have an artificial heart where you don't have side effects and you don't have any heart problems anymore, so it would last pretty much forever," Cohrs says. Well, perhaps not forever: "An artificial heart valve last 15 years at the moment. Maybe something like that."

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