You've probably never been to the International Museum of Surgical Science on Lake Shore Drive. Few people have. I've been twice; last year, so I could compare it with Philadelphia's notorious Mutter Museum. And the first time, for a party in 2000.
The bone crusher caught my attention.
A massive, chrome device with a pair of hooks that go over a limb, holding it in place, and a threaded rod tightened by a steel bar, that pushes down, breaking the arm or leg so it can be reset. The thing was dated to 1918, though it seemed as if it belonged to the Middle Ages.
The intriguing contraption was just one of the eye-popping—sometimes literally—displays at the International Museum of Surgical Science, located, along with the International College of Surgeons, in a grand pair of side-by-side mansions on the 1500 block of North Lake Shore Drive. The museum is a perennial favorite in the pantheon of offbeat Chicago sites.
I had always intended on visiting, someday. But the years passed, then decades, and the desire never coalesced into action until free food and beverages were thrown into the mix.
Then I was there in a heartbeat, joining the throng celebrating the publication of Secret Chicago (ECW Press, $ 17.95), Sam Weller's guide to odd, little-known places in the Chicago area.
As is inevitable with such guides, the book is a curious mix of genuine hidden treasures, such as the museum, visited by as many as 20 people a day, and better-known locales, such as the Art Institute, or that obscure gem known only to the 4 million people who somehow discover it, Taste of Chicago.
While I enjoyed the museum, I don't know if I would recommend it to everybody, particularly the faint of heart.
True, it has a certain naive charm. In an era when most museum exhibits are ultra-slick endeavors, assembled by teams of academics and funded by multinational corporations, the surgical museum is endearingly rustic, almost crude, in a cobbled-together way, between the rough stone statues in its Hall of Immortals, and the haphazard jumble of displays, identified haltingly with handmade labels, all skewed and fading.
But the folksiness of the place also contributes to its chamber-of-horrors feel, the way the serenity of a town in a Stephen King novel underlines the nightmares building below the surface. I had heard about the uteral and kidney stones on proud display, but was caught off-guard by the vivid oil paintings of unspeakable pre-modern surgeries, not to mention the saws, knives and, of course, that bone crusher.
I left the place intrigued by a pair of questions.
First, why is the museum there? As flush as the International College of Surgeons, which runs the museum, must certainly be, it also must be tempted to cash out on such a prime piece of real estate and put its museum, oh, in Navy Pier or Woodfield Mall or some place where people could actually get at it.
Short answer: They can't.
"Of course the buildings are landmarks," said Dolores Leber, a museum associate. "That's why we're in the place we're at. It's the perfect site for high- rises, but being a landmark . . . . And second: Sure, that bone crusher seems barbaric. But how do they reset bones now? For all I know, every hospital in America has a bone crusher.
"Things are much more sophisticated," said Dr. David Beigler, an orthopedist at Illinois Masonic Medical Center. He said the problem with a device such as the bone crusher is you never know where the bone will break. Nowadays, they'd operate, going in and cutting.
Still, the process is not without its throwbacks to the past.
"We do have a wire saw that you operate with two hands called a 'giggly saw,' " said Dr. Brian Cole of Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center. "It's sort of a prehistoric device."
Dr. Cole had no idea, however, what the ominous "giggly" in "giggly saw" refers to. That's the problem with this profession. You solve one question, and another pops up to take its place.
—Originally published May 18, 2000 in the Sun-Times