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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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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain
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This Just In
Lincoln’s Famous Letter of Condolence to a Grieving Mother Was Likely Penned by His Secretary
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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a famously eloquent writer. One of his most renowned compositions is the so-called “Bixby letter,” a short yet poignant missive the president sent a widow in Boston who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. But as Newsweek reports, new research published in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities [PDF] suggests that Lincoln’s private secretary and assistant, John Hay, actually composed the dispatch.

The letter to Lydia Bixby was written in November 1864 at the request of William Shouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, and state governor John Albion Andrew. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” it read. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”

Unknown to Lincoln, Bixby had actually only lost two sons in battle; the others had deserted the army, were honorably discharged, or died a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, word of the compassionate presidential gesture spread when the Boston Evening Transcript reprinted a copy of the 139-word letter for all to read.

Nobody quite knows what happened to Bixby’s original letter—some say she was a Confederate sympathizer and immediately burnt it—but for years, scholars debated whether Hay was its true author.

During Hay’s lifetime, the former secretary-turned-statesman had reportedly told several people in confidence that he—not Lincoln—had written the renowned composition, TIME reports. The rumor spread after Hay's death, but some experts interpreted the admission to mean that Hay had transcribed the letter, or had copied it from a draft.

To answer the question once and for all, a team of forensic linguists in England used a text analysis technique called n-gram tracing, which identifies the frequency of linguistic sequences in a short piece of writing to determine its true author. They tested 500 texts by Hay and 500 by Lincoln before analyzing the Bixby letter, the researchers explained in a statement quoted by Newsweek.

“Nearly 90 percent of the time, the method identified Hay as the author of the letter, with the analysis being inconclusive in the rest of the cases,” the linguists concluded.

According to Atlas Obscura, the team plans to present its findings at the International Corpus Linguistics Conference, which will take place at England’s University of Birmingham from Monday, July 24 to Friday, July 28.

[h/t Newsweek]

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science
These Deep-Sea Worms Could Live More Than a Thousand Years

Plunge below the sparkling surface of the Gulf of Mexico, head down into the depths, and there you'll find the ancient ones, growing in clusters of drab tubes like piles of construction equipment. Scientists writing in the journal The Science of Nature report that some of these worms could be more than 1000 years old.

When it comes to marine organisms, the deeper you go, the slower and older life gets. Biologists have found an octopus that guarded her eggs for four and a half years. They've seen clams born during the Ming dynasty and sharks older than the United States. They've seen communities of coral that have been around for millennia.

Previous studies have shown that some species of tube worm can live to be 250 years old. To find out if the same was true for other species—in this case, the Gulf of Mexico's Escarpia laminata—researchers spent years watching them grow. They used a long-lasting dye called Acid Blue to mark six clusters of worms, then let them to go about their wormy business. A year later, they collected all 356 blue-stained tubes and brought them back to the lab to measure their growth.

By calculating the speed of the worms' growth and comparing it to the size of the largest individuals, the scientists could devise a pretty good estimate of the oldest worms' age.

And boy, are they old. The researchers' worm-growth simulation suggested that the most ancient individuals could be more than 9000 years old. This seems incredible, even for tough old tube worms, so the scientists calculated a more conservative maximum age: a mere 1000 years.

A millennium-long lifespan is an extreme and not the average, the paper authors note. "There may indeed be large E. laminata over 1000 years old in nature, but given our research, we are more confident reporting a life span of at least 250 to 300 years," lead author Alanna Durkin of Temple University told New Scientist.

Still, Durkin says, "E. laminata is pushing the bounds of what we thought was possible for longevity."

She's excited by the prospect of finding older creatures yet.

"It's possible that new record-breaking life spans will be discovered in the deep sea,” she says, “since we are finding new species and new habitats almost every time we send down a submersible.”

 

[h/t New Scientist]

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