NML Medical Museum at 90

NML Medical Museum at 90

Lékařské muzeum

Československé zdravotnické muzeum

Zdravotnické muzeum Národní lékařské knihovny


The Medical Museum of the National Medical Library, founded as the Museum of Physicians (Lékařské muzeum) in 1934, celebrates incredible 90 years. Moving locations and changing names, it has persevered, rich in its unique collections, the creativity of its staff, and the history of health care it reflects, represents, and questions.

The Club Room of the House of Physicians, early 1930s. In this room, the Medical Museum was first proposed in 1934. NML Medical Museum Photography Collection, FA 126

The museum started small and remained small. Time after time, it was expected to grow into a major memory institution and a memorial to the triumphs of Czech medical science, to the role of medicine and doctors in building the Czechoslovak state, or to health care provided to all. Just as often, it was on the edge of survival, short of both storage and exhibition space, evoking little interest from the media, the authorities, and the public. It was never short of people: in each generation, new enthusiasts from among physicians, historians, librarians, curators, or collectors arose, ready to devote their learning, time, and labor to the museum. In each generation, advocates of the museum in professional organizations, the medical library, and the government, donors and visitors arrived. At least a few names should be mentioned: Professor František Šamberger (1871-1944), who first raised the idea of a medi-cal museum, at the assembly meeting of the Medical House Board on February 13, 1934; Professor Karel Hübschmann (1881-1981), a leading spirit of the museum from its first years until the 1970s; Viktor Palivec (1908-1989), the Librarian of the Medical Library and the Curator of the museum collections; Božena Petrlíková (b. 1925), the Curator during both adverse and hopeful postwar years, as well as Ludmila Cuřínová (1948-2008), who helped bring the museum back to life after 1991. The museum has always been closely connected with the Prague medical library. Thanks are due to its management, to the Directors Karel Růžička (1911-1994), who had worked in both institutions before the war and continued to promote and defend the museum during the 1960s, Dr. Otakar Pinkas, and above all, Dr. Helena Bouzková, under whose leadership the NML Medical Museum has entered the twenty-first century.

The exact birthday of the Medical Museum is elusive. The House of Physicians (Lékařský dům), the seat of professional associations and the medical library, opened on March 28, 1931, and its founders must have considered and discussed a museum in the next three years. The medical public and potential donors responded at once to the 1934 announcement and in the summer, daily newspapers brought the story as well. Yet the museum had no institutional reality and no way to show the collected objects until much later. A meeting on December 19, 1938, established the museum as an independent department of the Medical House and founded the Medical Museum Society. The very beginning of its maturity was marked by the events of the 20 century: at the moment of the Nazi occupation, the museum existed for mere four years, or less than four months.

František Šamberger proposed placing the museum in the „store” on the first floor of the Medical House. Office spaces on either side of the building may have come under consideration. During the year 1938, the growing collections were stored on the gallery of the Medical Bookstore, to the right of the entrance, reserving the store window as exhibition space. In 1944, the museum joined the Czech Museum Association and acquired steel cabinets for preserving the most valuable objects including old prints, but at the same time, it had to squeeze into one room together with the Medical Library. After the liberation, it passed from the Medical Library to the Ministry of Health and back, its collections packed on a mere 20 m2 in the Medical House. In June 1950, it relocated into another store in the neighboring house (Sokolska 29) and in 1954 into the nearby Spa Management building, the current seat of the National Medical Library. Three years later, it returned to the gallery of the Medical Bookstore.

The centenary celebrations of the Association of Czech Physicians in 1962 prompted a rebirth of the Medical Museum. Under a new name, Czechoslovak Medical Museum (or Czechoslovak Museum of Health Care, Čs. Zdravotnické muzeum) it could move into the Art nouveau “Makovec House” in the center of Prague, on the Pařížská Boulevard N. 11. Four thematic exhibitions and the media response brought the museum back to public awareness. Additional depositary space was promised, but never provided. Three years later, the building was reassigned to the new Balnea state travel agency and the museum relocated back to the Medical House – a tiny phone switchboard room – and the cellars of Pavilion 34 in the Bohnice Psychiatric Hospital. For the next 30 years, the „museum without visitors” fought for space and survival. The effort of its staff and its fans – curators Jarmila Psotníčková (b. 1910), Božena Petrlíková and Jaroslav Vlček (1913-1998), Karel Hübschmann or Dr. Aleš Salich (b. 1901) – to find space within or outside Prague remained fruitless. After 1970, the Czech Museum of Human Care, a Prague Spring project uniting medical, pharmaceutic, and hygienic collections under state management, came to nothing as well. Shortly before he died in 1981, Karel Hübschmann did succeed in transferring the rooms of his own office in the city center, in Vodičkova 26, to the museum. The building, however, was subject to property restitution in 1992, the most valuable objects were moved to 42 m2 in Strašnice and later in the Jižní Město housing development, while most of the collection remained in Bohnice and other cellar storage. Only in 1997, a new location was found. A little house in the courtyard of the National Medical Library, once a stable and a carriage shed, welcomes visitors to this day, across the street from the original museum location.

A museum is defined by its collections. Before the year 1934 was over, the first donations of objects, documents, and books from physicians and others interested in Czech medical history began

Ivory pharmacy jar, Elbogen (Loket), 1826, marked Unguento egiciaco („Egyptian ointment“ with honey and copper acetate) for ulcer treatment. Jan Skála-Rosenbaum, district physician in Jirny (1899-1944) donated pharmacy vessels, old prints amd other documents beginning in late 1934. NML Medical Museum, PH 3

to arrive. During the German occupation, standing up for a Czech medical museum was a question of honor for many and the support did not wane in the first postwar years or the 1960s. The gifts included medical instruments, photographs, pictures, and documents related to great men (and much later, women) of Czech medicine, as well as present of the medical profession. The main professional bulletin regularly presented new acquisitions and related historical articles.

The first exhibit, a postcard written by the politician, diplomat, and scientist Milan Rastislav Štefánik to the histologist Josef Victor Rohon from a trip to Tashkent, demonstrated the interest of the museum in the newly founded state, whose representatives actively promoted medical research and public health care. Another early acquisition, a 19th-century printed memento mori donated by František Šamberger, indicated attention to life and death questions as the wider philosophical context of medicine. First surgical instruments, a lithotome, a tourniquet, and a set of fleams from Dr. Blažej Prusík (1884-1953) and a dental forceps from Dr. Josef Aul (1894-1956), arrived before the end of 1934, as did an obstetric calendar, designed by Jiří Czarda (1851-1885) for medical students in the 1870s. Medical technology, however, constituted a small part of the collection and larger, more complicated instruments came only after the war. At the end of 1934, on the suggestion of Dr. Alois Kafka (1908-1980), the museum started an ex libris collection and doctors sent bookplates they used, designed, or collected. Objects of „alternative medicine,” homeopathy or folk healing, did turn up among the acquisitions, but both before and after the war, the collection remained focused on the history of academic or scientific medicine.

During the war, many amateur collectors contributed to the museum. In 1941, the gynecologist Antonín Mastný (1875-1945) founded the numismatic collection and shortly before his death, he donated part of his own medals and coins. Josef Gruss (1884-1968), another gynecologist, as well as philatelist, Olympic fencer, and Olympic functionary, established the stamp collection in the same year. New objects continued to arrive in the 1960s as well and even in later decades. Two important acquisitions date to the early 1970s: the acological cabinet, a teaching set of 18th and 19th-century surgical instruments founded by Joseph Anton Oechy (1771-1813) at the Prague University Surgical Clinic in 1809, and a part of the Würtz Collection. The latter, put together by the German special educator Hans Würtz (1875-1958) in the 1920s and 1930s and shown only a few times since, contains statues and images of people with disabilities across history, documenting „imagination of disability” in the 20 century and before. Recently, an international, interdisciplinary project has been launched to describe, digitize, and analyze the collection and to display it both physically and online.

The first exhibitions of the Medical Museum were held in the reading room of the House of Physicians: the ex libris were displayed in March 1937, followed by a cross-section of the acquisitions in May. The display in the Medical Bookstore window in February 1938 introduced the museum to the public beyond the physician community; another followed in August to celebrate fifty years of the main Czech professional organization. The store window hosted the first postwar exhibits as well; small occasional shows were also set up in industrial plants. In 1962, the museum could launch its own extensive exhibitions again in the building on Pařížská Street. The first two, curated by the gastroenterologist and numismatist Jaroslav Obermajer (1922-2001), were based on the numismatic collection he went on to describe. Both „Coins, Medals and Orders in the Medical Service to Society” and „Selected Chapters from the History of Medicine” prominently displayed medals on medical themes. The third exhibition offered „Medical Museum in a Nutshell.” Only a small segment on „Moravian Physicians-Archaeologists” of a large planned exposition on prehistoric medicine, curated by Vladimír Zapletal (1900-1983), was realized in 1965.

From the Pařížská Street exhibition (1962): hand trepan, vaginal speculum, ivory model of a pregnant woman and a tin hot water bottle, 17th- 18th centuries. In the background, Czech health regimen by Johann Kopp of Raumenthal (1535). NML Medical Museum Photography Collection, FA 3493

Close cooperation with the Postal Museum brought about a 1992 exhibition that linked the history of Czechoslovak postal stamps on medical themes with medical instruments, medals, and documents. Further joint projects with major Czech museums followed in the 1990s: Medicína očima staletí (Medicine through the Eyes of Centuries, National Technical Museum, 1994), Válka, pošta, lazarety (War, Post, Hospitals, Postal Museum, 1999) or Člověk proti nemocem (Man against Diseases, National Museum, 2000). In later years, some of these exhibitions saw upgrades and reruns in smaller venues. Major exhibitions since 2000 included Historické lékařské nástroje a pomůcky (Historical Medical Instruments and Devices, with the First Faculty of Medicine, Charles University, 2008); Postiženi normalitou (Disabled by Normality, DOX Center for Contemporary Art, 2013), where the Würtz Collection was shown after 80 years together with contemporary art projects on the theme of disability; Člověk v náhradách (Man-Made Man, National Technical Museum, 2017-2018) on the history and the prospects of prosthetics; or Epidemie a pandemie (Epidemics and Pandemics), a response to the challenge of COVID 19, in the City Museum and Gallery in Svitavy (2022). The Medical Museum building has housed smaller regular exhibitions: currently, Plagues 1521-2021 displays the triumphs and the blind alleys of medicine and public health over five hundred years of battling infection.

The NML Medical Museum has continued to document and display the history and the present of medicine and health care in the Czech Lands. Recently, new themes have emerged or gained urgency: the paradox of medical help in war, where humans produce and prevent pain and death; public health care, health promotion, and ideology before World War II and after; vaccines and the triumphs, hopes, and wars continue to call forth; disability and its representations; alternative healing methods or the materials of medical technology and their impact on the environment.

The project, the layout, and the physical collections of the Medical Museum took shape gradually, both in 1934 and in the following years. During the anniversary year, we will continue to add to its story and introduce the events and the people that have shaped the museum and the most interesting items in its present collection.

Recent acquisitions include a REDOR vibrating massager, introduced in 1969.  The first 100 manufactured massagers were distributed to actors, athletes and families „where weight reduction  is pursued systematically.“ NML Medical Museum, P 286