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Medical Vienna and other jaunts

July 13, 2011

Today, after a lecture about storytelling, scripts, schemas and the subjectivity of all these in dealing with all these in psychology, the legal world and even medicine, I, and another participant of the seminar, decided to venture to the history of medicine museum belonging to the University of Vienna. This museum is housed in a grand old place called the Josephina that used to be a part of a larger medical faculty so one could see all the instruments of old that were used all the way up to the 17th century (the building itself was originally erected in the 18th century though it has since undergone much renovations). It was interesting to see the posters and plans surrounding the museum with both the forefathers and foremothers (I was excited to note that) that had been instrumental in shaping the history of medicine in Austria. It is unfortunate that the artifacts were not better catalogued. My partner-in-crime for this visit and I were a little confused by the clutter of very interesting instruments, some handled by famous doctors such as I.P. Semmelweis, his predecessors and successors. Of course, some objects were well categorized, with notes (written in scientific code that could only be understood by the doctors targeted) and also various textbooks produced by these eminent pioneers of modern medicine in Vienna and Austria at large. I wish I was able to produce photographic evidence but they had disallowed photography for the most parts (though I was able to surreptitiously capture the disinfectant basin and jug used in the Hempel story on Semmelweis and the theoretical framework of contagion. It was great to be able to go to the museum with a philosopher of science who also happens to have an interest in the history of medicine because the objects are no longer dead but become lively subjects of our conversations as we speculate about the what-of the past, and the bodies and beings that had passed under these objects. We were lucky for how many doctors who ever have had the privilege to see ‘in-the-flesh’ the instruments that were the ancestors of so many of the common tools we see in hospitals today, as well as tools that had fallen out of use because of humanistic and ethical reasons (such as the psychiatric ward strait jacket chair that looks like a ‘death’ chair).  At the annexe part of the museum, one can see wunderkammer type of instrumental curiosities that range from a very old fashion sphygmomanometer to instruments used to study your brain waves. Of course, we saw some really HUGE syringes (wished I’d remembered to sneak in a photo) and of course, sharp objects that would not have been out of place in a horror movie set (love them though, I hope I will be rich enough to collect them one day). One thing interesting about the museum is that it also recorded the western medical science interest with ethnomedicine and alternative treatments (anyone ever saw a real-life homeopathic kit? This is no twentieth-century phenomenon). Of course, you also get to ‘meet’ the great doctors who discovered (synthesized) drugs that would have given you the death penalty in some countries. I think it would be great if the museum management would consider doing a simulation of what had gone on ones in the hallowed halls. I wouldn’t mind paying a lot more to relive that experience.

It was great to visit this museum after having visited the Imperial Hofburg detailing the private lives of the almost final Emperors and Empress of Hapsburg (you know, the famous Franz Josef I, his Empress Elisabeth or Sisi and his murdered/suicided son, Rudolf) because one could trace the beginnings of greater awareness of the public health and sanitation (the Empress built her own private bathroom that came with a flush toilet, all in the 19th century). One also found the dental hygiene was also becoming more important for the people even from the 19th century and dentistry became a ‘scientific’ profession rather than one administered by one’s corner barber.

I tried to go to the famous St Marx cemetery at almost 8 pm for some nice atmospheric immersion but I failed as the entrance was closed by then.  I doubt I would have time now (should have been better at planning), so, maybe the next time I am in Vienna. However, I did see a part of Vienna that would intrude into the imagination of most. An ugly suburb near that eminent cemetery (I’ll post a picture later).

Now I gotta get some reading done for a discussion date tomorrow. Also, I need to prepare for a very brief presentation on Fri (hopefully I’ll be coherent enough not to stump too many people).

tschuss (by August, I should be able to write better German).

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