Hearts, brains and bones: Visitors to new museum will 'come a little closer to death'

The Maude Abbott Medical Museum is set to open on the Montreal campus Sept. 24.

'We have virtually everything you can think of,' says pathologist Rick Fraser.

Pathologist Rick Fraser says the public will be able to see human skulls, hearts and even brains at the new museum. (Submitted by the Maude Abbott Medical Museum)
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Visitors to McGill University's newest museum can expect brains and bones — and to confront death head on, says pathologist Rick Fraser. 

The Maude Abbott Medical Museum is set to open to the public on the Montreal campus Sept. 24.

The collection was originally amassed for use by medical students, doctors and professors at McGill. But this museum will be open to everyone — and allow the public a rare glimpse into the human body.  

Fraser is a pathologist at the McGill University Health Centre, who helped bring the museum to life. He spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about what people can expect when they walk in the front doors. 

 Here is part of that conversation. 

What kinds of human body parts will people be able to see at this museum?

Well, we have virtually everything you can think of. Virtually every organ of the body, as well as many bones from the skeleton.

What are some of the [specimens] that you think the public will be most interested in?

There are some brains in which people have fallen, previously, and developed hemorrhage blood that compressed the brain and caused death.

Perhaps even more common would be the heart, that you might see a heart attack ... You can actually see that in some of the specimens we have. 

People will have maybe read about things like that and maybe even seen pictures of it, but to see the actual three dimensional structure… I think it has meaning, certainly for students, and also for the public.

A wax, life-like face that would have been used to train students. (Submitted by the Maude Abbott Medical Museum)

How did you acquire them?

They all come from individuals who attended hospitals in Montreal, mostly in the McGill system of hospitals.

It was more the paternalistic ... era of medicine, when consent for either performing certain procedures such as surgery, as well as for acquiring organs at surgery —  for example, if an organ was taken out in the operating room or after death — such consent was not always given.

We now and for many, many years, in fact for over 50 years, have not taken material like this because we would specifically ask consent of the patient for use of it and we just don't do it anymore.

It's a bit of an ethical issue, I guess. But we've decided that the vast majority of people whose organs we have now, organs and bones, would probably be willing to see that this material is being used in the way that it is.

How did this museum come about?

The story is that it began probably in the 1820s, just at the time the McGill University was being formed. And it began because the four founders of McGill were physicians, who founded the medical school and wanted to teach.

At the time, medical museums were considered to be a very important part of student teaching. So they began by collecting various organs and bones that they got from their patients.

A tibia with chronic osteomyelitis, which is a severe infection of the bone and bone marrow. (Submitted by the Maude Abbott Medical Museum)

Who's Maude Abbot?

Maude Abbot was a young woman when she took over the control of the museum. That was in 1898 and she was a remarkable woman.

She was one of the first women to graduate from McGill University in arts and went on to become a physician, although she couldn't do it at McGill at the time.

She went on to take over the curatorship of the museum for about 25 years … and she developed it into one of the premier medical museums in North America.

And she wrote a book, "Atlas" it was called, which many now feel is the basis for the development of modern techniques of treating congenital cardiac disease.

The original purpose of a museum like this is a teaching museum and so why open it to the general public? I mean, are you at all concerned that people have a kind of morbid fascination with this or do you really see this as something of value beyond that?

I do and I'll tell you there are several reasons for it. First of all, I understand what you mean by morbid fascination and, you never know, there may be some people who have that feeling.

I think for people to actually learn about disease, which is one of the things that we can teach them about, and to some extent come a little closer to death.

And what death is, is not something that everyone comes across as a young person. And I think it's worthwhile for people to somehow know a little bit about this. Confront it. And that's one of the things we can do here.

Written by Sarah Jackson. Produced by Donya Ziaee. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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