What to Expect at Cleveland’s Dittrick Medical Museum

Case Western Reserve University
Case Western Reserve University | © Paul Sableman / Flickr
Laura Dorwart

If you’re a history buff or simply have a taste for the macabre, the Dittrick Museum of Medical History in Cleveland, Ohio, is a must-see, offering one of the premier collections of medical artifacts in the world.

Nestled in the College of Arts and Sciences at Case Western Reserve University in the University Circle neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio, is one of the world’s weirdest museums.

After humble beginnings in a single drawer of surgical instruments and medical mementos started by area surgeon Dr. Dudley Peter Allen and the Cleveland Medical Library Association in 1898, a museum devoted to clinical history was officially launched by curator Dr. Howard Dittrick in 1926.

Dr. Dittrick was an avid traveler and a collector of medical artifacts and antiques, including Roman surgical tools and the pioneer-era “saddle bags” used by itinerant doctors. The Dittrick Medical History Center now showcases over 175,000 artifacts from the full range of diagnosis and treatment of every kind of human ailment.

The museum’s collection includes a variety of notable oddities from medical history, all of which provide visitors with a fascinating glimpse into how medical diagnosis and treatment have shifted over the years. The Blaufox Hall of Diagnostic Instruments displays one of the world’s largest collections of medical instruments.

Highlights include a full replica of a doctor’s office straight out of 1875, a Victorian-era anatomical model, and the cardiac defibrillator owned by cardiac surgery pioneer and Nobel Prize nominee Claude Beck.

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The Dittrick Medical History Center is also known for its collection of historical medical technologies, such as retro X-ray machines, an iron lung, and, in the Millikin Room of Microscopes, microscopes from various eras.

Many visitors are particularly interested in the Historic Contraception Devices and History of Reproduction collections, both of which are located within the Percy Skuy display on the museum’s third floor. Birthing chairs, IUDs, birth control pills, diaphragms, and condoms from every period in American history give viewers a harrowing perspective about the reality of childbirth, midwifery, pregnancy, and sexual health mere decades ago.

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In addition to the main collections of everything from apothecary-era tinctures to brain drills, the Dittrick Medical History Center provides countless opportunities for visitors to get more context about the instruments on display and how they were used.

The museum’s Rare Books center features a collection of works by Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin’s books and manuscripts, and other texts on anatomy, surgery, herbals, and medical technology. Visitors can browse the library to learn more about the work on display by appointment. They can also attend a variety of special events held at the museum, such as annual lectures, the CONVERSATIONS series (TED-style talks by expert speakers), and MIXERS events (more laid-back social gatherings).

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The Dittrick Medical History Center is open Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., on Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. (beginning on May 2, 2018, the closing time on Wednesdays will be 4:30 p.m.), and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Visitors can tour the Dittrick Museum, which sits within the larger Allen Memorial Medical Library, during open hours for free at any time.

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