Beneath the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore lies the Anatomical Services Division, the department responsible for collecting, storing, and preparing cadavers for anatomical dissection and other educational purposes. A dimly lit hallway connects a massive freezer housing hundreds of cadavers, an embalming room, and a dissection lab. Towards the end of the hallway is a room filled with mummified human remains. Within the cavernous freezer, the unclaimed and indigent dead of the state lie on steel trays next to decedents who willed their bodies in advance to be used for medical education. This freezer is colder than a typical morgue - the cadavers must be thawed prior to use. Across the hallway from the dissection lab is a storage closet containing the remnants of a historic specimen collection.
A total of 1,248 specimens, some dating back to the late 19th century, rest on cluttered metal shelves, collecting dust. Organs afflicted by tuberculosis, syphilis, and even one rectangular segment of skin with smallpox, are neatly pinned out inside glass and metal jars filled with preservative fluid. Some of these fluids have stood the test of time, particularly those likely containing arsenic and mercuric chloride. Most of the specimens, however, are immersed in alcohol or formaldehyde which chemically degrade with time and must be replenished with fresh solution every 5-10 years or so to preserve specimen quality. Since there is no upkeep, the specimens exist in varying states of decay, forgotten and essentially left to decompose over time as the preservative chemicals slowly break down.
This dilapidated collection was once part of a small museum belonging to the pathology department which was noted by Abraham Flexner during his visit to the University of Maryland School of Medicine over 100 years prior. Perhaps this asset even helped the school survive his critique, which served as the catalyst to ostensibly improve medical education by closing over 80 medical schools in the United States. The museum was originally housed in the hospital associated with the medical school. As advances in medical imaging replaced the need to study specimens, the museum fell out of vogue, no longer a reflection of academic excellence the museums of its kind once were. As the hospital grew, the collection was moved to a storage room to accommodate the expansion. Unfortunately, pigeons found their way into the neglected room, and using it to roost, covered many of the specimens with their excrement, as pigeons do. When the university discovered this, the specimens that survived were moved to the storage closet in the Anatomical Services Division, where they remain today.
As a graduate student I had the privilege of spending about a month sorting through this collection as part of the pathology department's attempt to catalog and organize it. Each day I would emerge from the basement reeking of formaldehyde and whiffs of unfamiliar caustic chemicals, full of wonder about the history I had just observed. The historic names of diseases and the common afflictions of various periods in time were fascinating. I still have a spreadsheet of the former museum's contents, although I unfortunately didn't have enough time to organize the collection into something properly searchable. Still, this sparked an interest in medical history. It is tragic that such things hold little value today, aside from historic interest. After all, hospitals have greater concerns. But the stories those specimens could tell! With genomic and genetic studies, perhaps they could still tell stories. Will they ever? How many more collections like this can be found in forgotten hospital basement storage rooms? Does any of this matter? I wish it did.
As I begin to dig into medical history for my new book, I look back on this experience and am grateful that my preceptor had the foresight to send me into the storage closet. Although it is a wee bit creepy and certainly not glamorous, I do believe there is value in bringing forgotten medical history to light. Perhaps one day someone may even bring these stories out of the basement.