We’ve just passed by the amputation kits, some still awash in dried blood, and we’ve glanced in at the ancient trepans used by Incans to punch holes in their skulls to relieve headaches.

Barry Van Deman pauses on this impromptu tour, a little squeamish. “I didn’t know anything about the medical world before coming here,” says the director of the International Museum of Surgical Science, located in the International College of Surgeons. “The only surgery I’ve ever had is having my tonsils removed.”

What he’s learned is that surgery was brutal. “Surgeons were barbers, literally,” Van Deman says. “When they weren’t cutting hair, they were called on to handle really basic type surgery. They didn’t understand about germs. They didn’t wash their hands. They were just cutters.”

We’re standing outside the library, and a large painting of a 17th-century amputation in progress hangs above us. In it, four men are holding down the frightened patient while a surgeon saws at the poor guy’s leg. To stop the bleeding, says Van Deman, the surgeon would have poured hot oil on the bloody stump to cauterize it.

There are also panels depicting a Turkish bloodletting, an Indian woman about to have a nose job with her legs tied to posts in the ground, and some 19th-century medical students washing blood and gunk off their arms and hands. One of the more graphic murals is of a cesarean section circa 1844, a procedure that was normally performed by midwives more interested in saving the baby than the mother.

Van Deman, the first professional director hired for the museum, has been on the job about a year, and he’s still getting to know the 15,000 objects on display in its 27 rooms. Some of the more impressive items include one of the seven original death masks of Napoleon; the first “artificial heart,” which was really a perfusion pump created by Charles Lindbergh in 1935 to keep animal tissue alive; and South America’s first X-ray machine, a large contraption that looks like it came out of a 1940s science fiction movie.

An old-fashioned pharmacy tucked away on the ground floor has hundreds of original “medicines” from the 1870s, including Lydia Pinkham’s Blood Medicine, Dr. Miles’ Cactus Compound, and my favorite, Dr. Schiffmann’s Cigarettes, which were supposed to relieve the distress of bronchial asthma.

There are no guards in the museum; visitors are on the honor system, expected not to disturb or damage the collection. Some of the stuff is locked behind glass, but Van Deman has heard horror stories, like the one about the nervous visitor caught stuffing an expensive Oriental rug out one of the museum’s windows, planning, apparently, to retrieve it from the back of the building. The man fled and the rug was recovered. Nothing like that, Van Deman says, has happened since he’s been on board.

The International College of Surgeons has been in the news lately for its efforts to tear down its lovely turn-of-the-century headquarters at 1524 N. Lake Shore Drive, save the facade of the former mansion, and build on the property a high-rise office and museum complex. Neighbors fighting the proposal point out that the college owns one of the few remaining lakefront mansions in the city. The landmark building was designed by Chicago architect Howard Van Doren Shaw in 1917, patterned after Le Petit Trianon, the French cottage built on the grounds of Versailles for Louis VXI and Marie Antoinette.

Despite the current controversy, Van Deman says, the museum, which gets lots of foreign visitors and tourists, doesn’t get many local walk-ins. “I’d like to change that,” he says. During the afternoon of my visit, only two other people stopped by the museum–a couple from Tinley Park who had come to Chicago for a day of fun.

If the college is allowed to build on the property, the museum will have a spiffy new home, Van Deman says. If not, some heavy-duty fund-raising will have to be done: the building needs a central heating and air-conditioning system with humidity control. Meanwhile, Van Deman is determined to make the museum more accessible and well-known to the general public.

The 41-year-old former schoolteacher believes in the hands-on approach to learning. As a teacher in Winfield, a community next to Wheaton, he designed his own classroom environment. “There were no rows of desks,” he boasts. “This was an environment where kids could work alone and in small groups. In the center of the room was a structure which the class called a kiva after the Indian kivas of the southwest. We also had a teepee in the room, a geodesic dome, an area that we covered with a little thatched roof and turned into our own library…. People learn if they can really get into the subject, feel it, absorb it, make it their own.”

He decided it was important to show other teachers how to duplicate his success. He moved on to Northern Illinois University as an instructor of science education, worked as the director of school curriculum for the Frankfort-area school system, and wound up at the Museum of Science and Industry, where he developed a program to help teachers in the Chicago area understand more about science.

The museum started by the International College of Surgeons was a new challenge. “Basically nothing had changed in this museum for years. They’d never had a director with any background in cultivating a collection. They never promoted what they had. I saw this as an opportunity of turning something around, helping it grow.”

The College of Surgeons opened the museum in 1953, three years after they moved into the building. When Van Deman was hired a year ago, his first project was to go through the collection with a fine-tooth comb, cataloging everything; his current project is cleaning up and organizing the pharmacy. His five-year plan is to boost the budget from its current $100,000 to at least $500,000 and to add an additional five or six full-time staff members. He’s already secured a grant of $1,500 from the Illinois Department of Tourism to help produce the museum’s first brochure, a slick book that will be distributed by the state.

“What amazes me is that people will walk in the door and spend hours here,” Van Deman says. “We have an unusual collection of instruments, but none of them are labeled. We need some reorganization. If it’s properly organized, we really have an opportunity here to teach something about the history of surgery. I’d also like in the future to show some of the more recent advances.”

The hands-on idea won’t necessarily be in effect for all of the museum’s display areas. It’s hard to imagine people fingering the early hand-blown X-ray tubes without breaking a few. And the thought of pranksters running around with those enormous metal needles sends shivers down the spine.

“You can’t have people reaching into the display cases and handling the artifacts, that’s true,” Van Deman admits. “But you can make some of the learning experiences interactive. We can show films about the history of surgery, have lectures, provide more descriptions about what these instruments mean.” Films aren’t a bad idea, but they might not be necessary if visitors take in those murals.

Van Deman pauses and reflects. “In ancient Greece there was some knowledge of surgery, and they were doing certain techniques. But that knowledge wasn’t carried down in medieval times or to Western civilization. Everything had to be learned by trial and error.

“Surgery,” he notes, “really refers to the hands. It was a craft of the hands. You still have a distinction in Great Britain today where they call surgeons ‘mister’ and physicians ‘doctor.’ But here, surgeons are higher paid and are held up to a high level of esteem. It takes more years in the U.S. to be a surgeon than a physician.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.