Riga, Lativa’s Pauls Stradins Museum of the History of Medicine is a very serious place. Men and women in lab coats bustle about, sober school groups move from display to display, and the staff greets guests and readily answers questions. But moving about its 3 floors is a bit, well, more than a bit, like visiting an old-time carnival sideshow. There were bizarre things in jars, vivid examples of smokers’ lungs, weird smells throughout, gruesome medical treatments graphically pictured, and the like. Much that you see virtually dares you to look away. I couldn’t. I peered at everything in fascination, knowing full well what I was going to dream about that night, maybe forever. There is very little English accompanying displays, which is OK since what you’re gaping at, like the dress made of condoms, speaks for itself.
Much-honored Latvian Pauls Stradins had an illustrious career as a physician, professor, and cancer researcher. Born in 1896, Stradins died in 1958 after founding this museum and donating his personal collection, more than 30 years of accumulation. He personally designed the Middle Ages exhibit on the Museum’s first floor that includes a frisson-inducing glimpse into a monastery asylum. That’s what you see after you’ve made your way through dioramas of ancient medicine showing, among other chillers, a procedure called cranial trepanation. Like me, you’d probably rather have skipped that one.
Ruth and I made our way slowly through every exhibit, ending with the very interesting room devoted to space medicine on the 3rd floor. We saw entire reconstructed pharmacies from many eras, displays on the influence of Arabic medicine, historic medical books, the history of health resorts and healers, an entire early dental office, operating theaters that depicted the development of surgery, and too much more to detail here.
My personal nightmare inducers, the items that made me gasp in horror yet stare at as if nailed to the spot, were:
the photograph of the woman with small pox
the Medieval catheterization
the abnormally huge toe
and, especially, the two-headed dog (pictured below if you dare to look).
In the 1950’s a Russian scientist conducted a series of 20 experiments designed to find out what would happen if he blended the blood circulation systems of two dogs while maintaining each animal’s nervous system and brain. The implanted little dog, according to display notes, could eat, sleep, and bite. I would too.