The Semmelweiss Library and Archives of the History of Medicine

The Library is situated on 12 Török utca and is housed in a beautiful neo-baroque villa.

The Library is situated on 12 Török utca and is housed in a beautiful neo-baroque villa.

Established in 1837 by the Royal Society of Physicians in Budapest, the cultural and historical legacy of the current Semmelweis Museum, Library and Archives of the History of Medicine is much older than the 170 years of its official existence. Its substantial collections comprise more than 150,000 volumes, including over a thousand rare treats of hand-written early modern manuscripts, incunabula, numerous books on medicine and science, and an invaluable Index Medicus of scientific periodicals. The treasures to be found in the library are historical testament to the aim of the society’s founders “to cultivate science”, and, due to the multicultural make-up of Hungarian society in the nineteenth century, more than 30 languages are represented.

László Magyar and UCL’s IBSc History of Medicine students at the Semmelweis Library. By Carole Reeves.

László Magyar and UCL’s IBSc History of Medicine students at the Semmelweis Library. By Carole Reeves.

In 1968, the Semmelweis Medical History Museum and the Library and Archives were merged administratively and are now treated as a single institution. As a consequence, the Library became somewhat less visible than the more widely advertised Museum.  Although the Library is open to anyone interested in the history of science and human health, only academics specialising in one of the disciplines represented by the library’s holdings are currently frequenting the premises. In an article from 2011, the Library staff and director concluded that the library and its archive “remain underutilized”, not only by the international scholarly community. Potentially daunted by the Hungarian language, few are aware that there are some 1,717 publications in a variety of languages in the ‘collection of rarities’ alone, such as a fifteenth-century astrological-medical text in Latin by an unknown author, a variety of prints in German (a legacy of the Habsburg empire), as well as valuable English, French and Italian editions and manuscripts on science, medicine, philosophy, occultism, witchcraft and theology. A visit is highly recommended.On occasion of our visit, László Magyar, medical historian and director of the Semmelweis Library, had organised a little exhibition of curiosities with a cross section of the juiciest items found in its archives. Among beautifully illustrated prints from the early modern period, ranging from herbalist accounts to treatises on alchemy and anatomy, unusual early modern scientific endeavours were also represented, including a fascinating account of a curious physician who conducted experiments with accused witches to test their ability to fly whilst being locked up in barrels. The test subjects, having swallowed their customary potions beforehand, did indeed emerge from the barrel with a report of a journey through the air, which led the scientifically-minded physician to conclude that the witches’ journeys were spiritual ones – possibly induced by drugs – rather than actual flight. It should also be noted that, next to being a passionate archivist, László Magyar happens to be an expert on the history and theory of Vampirism; a like-minded researcher can therefore be assured to find a variety of sources on the subject in the Semmelweis Library.

 

Further information

http://www.semmelweis.museum.hu/index_en.html

Katalin Kapronczay, László Magyar, Constance E. Putnam, ‘The Library of the Royal Society of Physicians in Budapest becomes today’s Semmelweis Medical History Library’, Journal of the Medical Library Association 99 (1), Jan. 2011, 31-39.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3016667/

Based on an interesting project related to the library, one can also find a list of digitalized medical dissertations from 1729 to 1848. http://www.orvostortenet.hu/disszertaciok/?page=4&type=2

The Anatomical-Pathological Collections at the Semmelweis Medical University, Budapest

In the wake of Enlightenment medical reforms initiated by Habsburg’s Empress Maria Theresa, Hungary’s first Faculty of Medicine at the University of Trnava also received a Department of Anatomy in 1769. Although the department frequently changed names and location (it is now the Department of Anatomy, Histology and Embryology at the Semmelweis Medical University in Budapest), it has maintained its legal continuity ever since its foundation. The building that now houses the department’s historical anatomical-pathological collection was constructed between 1897 and 1898 and was then renowned as the most modern Anatomy hub of its day.

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As with all historical collections, the one on display in the Anatomy Museum tells several stories: of old ways of doing anatomy and new reforms, of passionate physicians and victims of gruesome diseases, of quests for knowledge and an obsession with the weird and wonderful among nature’s creations.

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József Lenhossék, head of the Anatomy department in 1859, modernised the department’s teaching and research and laid down the foundation of today’s Museum of Anatomy. Like Florence and Vienna, it once owned a series of beautifully made anatomical and surgical wax models, which had been donated to the university by Joseph II in the late eighteenth century. Unfortunately, the majority of these were destroyed during the siege of Budapest in the winter of 1944-45; but a few have survived and are now on display in Semmelweis’ birth house, the Museum of the History of Medicine. The Anatomy Museum still holds Lenhossék’s preparations, in particular those showing the vascular and central nervous system, as well as a number of objects from the private collection of an eccentric dentist named József Iszlai who fell victim to the late-nineteenth-century craze for ‘Dental Anthropology’, becoming the most ardent and passionate collector of skulls and teeth. He donated his dental preparations and skull collection (deemed ‘world famous’ by the Hungarian founder of paleostomatology György Huszár) to the university in 1902.

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Today, the museum’s overall collection further benefits from an annual competition amongst medical students preparing new objects, which adds an average of 4-5 items to the collection each year. This, and the fact that the collection is still used to teach medical students the art of anatomy, is rather unique: old objects and new ones are not strictly separated as the past and the present usually is, but live side by side, serving the same educational purpose as the very first anatomical-pathological objects collected for the museum. The wooden shelves holding row upon row of pathological objects in formaldehyde-filled glass jars still convey the former grandeur and the excitement pertaining to the growing field of anatomy and pathology in the nineteenth century, and modern-day students continue to handle these objects with the same fascination as their forebears.

Brains, Guts and Bones: objects from the annual student competition at the Museum for Anatomy.  All images courtesy of the Department of Anatomy, Histology and Embryology, Semmelweis University, Budapest.

Brains, Guts and Bones: objects from the annual student competition at the Museum for Anatomy. All images courtesy of the Department of Anatomy, Histology and Embryology, Semmelweis University, Budapest.

On our visit, we got an exclusive tour of the collection, together with the history of Anatomy buildings before and after WWII, from László Molnár, head of the Archives of the Semmelweis Medical University. As the museum serves primarily educational purposes, only students of the medical faculty can use the museum throughout the year (they can even borrow plastinated preparations). The public can visit only by appointment (to be booked via email: vidravera@freemail.hu) from mid-October to the end of November and from the beginning of February until the end of April. The Anatomy museum is certainly worth a visit, not only for historians of medicine!

– Stephanie Eichberg, UCL Science and Technology Studies, London
– Katalin Pataki, History of Medicine, Central European University, Budapest

Address: Anatomy Museum, Semmelweis Medical University Budapest, Tűzoltó utca 58

Further information

Regarding the history of the Anatomical Institution and of the University, Miklós Réthelyi (rethelyi@ana.sote.hu) and Géza Tótpál (totpal@ana.sote.hu) can be contacted (also in foreign languguages).

On the beginnings of Dental Anthropology and Paleostomatology in Hungary: http://www2.sci.u-szeged.hu/ABS/Acta%20HP/44-109.pdf

Images of anatomical-pathological preparations of the annual Géza Mihalkovics – student competition: http://www.ana.sote.hu/galeriak/mih2009/mihd2009-kep.htm#3

 

 

Museum of Ethnography in Budapest

The Museum of Ethnography in Budapest (the Néprajzi Múzeumin Hungarian), founded in 1872, is housed in a stunningly beautiful building in Kossuth Square, across from the Hungarian Parliament. It was built by the Austro-Hungarian professor and member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Alajos Hauszmann, and historians of science and medicine are likely to find quite a few gems among its vast collection of artefacts related to Hungarian, European, Oceanian and African folk culture. The Hungarian folk objects on display date from the 19th century up until World War II and comprise costumes, pottery, furniture, masks and magical objects.

The entrance hall to the Museum of Ethnography, Budapest. By Jean-Pierre Dalbera. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0. Unported license.

The entrance hall to the Museum of Ethnography, Budapest. By Jean-Pierre Dalbera. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0. Unported license.

Although foreign-language audio tour guides are available, the Ethnography Museum in Budapest is not (yet) the professionally commercialised venue you will find in other European countries.  The beauty of that is that the objects and their history speak for themselves and are not overburdened by historians’ interpretations.  The downside is that the experts behind the scenes remain somewhat hidden. So, if you are interested in particular aspects or objects of the museum, it might well be worth to get in touch with the people at the museum before your visit.

With the help of our Budapest tour guide and translator Ádám Mézes, a PhD in History of Medicine at the Central European University, we managed to arrange a meeting with Erika Koltay, an in-house expert on folk objects related to health and disease, who is well versed in some curious strands of Hungarian popular medicine with deep roots in the past. Traces of it are still found in cultural practices in rural villages in Hungary and Transylvania that she regularly visits to preserve the knowledge and related objects for the museum. A baked ring of bread (with flour provided by 9 different people in the village), for example, was/is used for a symbolic rebirth ritual in which a newborn infant is pushed through the ring to ‘clean’ it from potential future illnesses. To ‘throw out the baby with the bathwater’, to cite another example, used to contain a literal threat in Hungary: throwing out your baby’s bathwater after sundown meant an open invitation to witches to use said bathwater to harm or get hold of the child.

Erika Koltay, Ethnography Museum, showing a bread ring to  our UCL History of Medicine IBSc students.  By Carole Reeves.

Erika Koltay, Ethnography Museum, showing a bread ring to our UCL History of Medicine IBSc students. By Carole Reeves.

Some claim that these types of ‘contact magic’, based on the theory of sympathy, were introduced by Paracelsus whose wanderings brought him to Hungary in the early sixteenth-century,  but the rituals are in fact much older. What is more interesting, although the original magical knowledge on which many such everyday cultural rituals are based has been largely forgotten by the majority of Hungarians, they are – albeit in a weaker form – strangely persistent in modern-day Hungarian society: hair and nail clippings are still thrown into the fire lest they be used by someone else for harmful magic against you, and wooden dolls to ‘take off’ the illness are still to be found in some rural households. Not to mention that there are still a few wise women in rural areas practising magical healing.

Objects in the Museum of Ethnography, Budapest. By Jean-Pierre Dalbera. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0. Unported  license.

Objects in the Museum of Ethnography, Budapest. By Jean-Pierre Dalbera. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0. Unported license.

Magic and folk traditions may appear contrary to science, but they also reveal knowledge that is making sense of the world just as science is. Even today, Hungarians appear to be more open to alternative medicine than in many other European countries; for some, scientific medicine and folk traditions often live side by side, complementing rather than opposing each other. Hence, learning about the history of cultural objects as found in the Museum of Ethnography is to glimpse a different way of understanding body and mind, health and disease.

 

 

Address: 1055 Budapest, Kossuth Lajos tér 12.

Website: http://www.neprajz.hu/

Useful Links: http://www.folklore.ee/rl/pubte/ee/usund/ingl/hoppal.html

Further reading:

Erika Koltay, ‘History of Alternative Medicine in Hungary in 19th and Early 20th Century’, Comm. de Hist. Artis Med. 188-189 (2004), 57-68

Peter Babulka, Centuries of the Traditional Medicine in Hungary (accompanying text to the Millenial exhibition organized by P. Babulka, 2000) http://web.axelero.hu/golyahir/exhibition

Map:

 

Naturally-preserved Mummies in Budapest’s Natural History Museum and the town Vác

Buried between 1731 and 1838 in the crypt of a Dominican church in the northern Hungarian town of Vác, a number of naturally preserved and fully dressed mummies in their decorated coffins were forgotten for over 150 years and only discovered in 1994 during the church’s renovation. Reflecting a wide sample of Vác residents, the mummies include three nuns, 30 priests, the wife and child of the local postmaster, surgeons, and the founder of the Vác hospital and first director of the town’s school for the deaf.

The Dominican church of Vác where the mummies were found. By Carole Reeves.

The Dominican church of Vác where the mummies were found. By Carole Reeves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eighty-nine percent of the mummies, ranging in age from newborns to a lady of 95, had at one point been infected with tuberculosis and around 35 percent were suffering from the disease at the time of death. Evidence of the infection on the bones are visible to the naked eye. The strains of tuberculosis bacteria found in the people buried in Vác offer a unique opportunity to study the pathogens from a time before the development of antibiotics and prior to the Industrial Revolution. However, what makes this a particularly important project for historians is the existence of intact and very comprehensive archives relating to most of the individuals in this close-knit community, including birth and death records, and family archives.

Stacked decorated coffins of the Vác mummies. By Carole Reeves.

Stacked decorated coffins of the Vác mummies. By Carole Reeves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Almost all of the individuals have been identified by name and in many cases their life stories and the manner of their deaths can be pieced together from written sources. Several generations of the same families were buried together. Infection of the population with the tuberculosis bacillus (which is believed to occur mainly in early childhood) increased as the town grew, industrialised (to some extent), and saw immigrants arriving from rural areas. Of individuals born before 1740, about 48 percent carried the TB bacillus, but this rose to 100 percent in those born during the years 1760-1774. This type of population movement – from rural to urban areas – was associated with a rise in TB deaths in the 19th and 20th centuries at the height of industrialisation but being able to observe it in the 18th century is important. Most of the mummies have been transferred to the Hungarian Natural History Museum in Budapest for further research and are not available for viewing by the public although we were fortunate to have a behind-the-scenes tour because bioarchaeologists from UCL have been working with experts from the Museum.

Ildiko Pap (centre) amidst UCL’s History of Medicine IBSc students at the Natural History Museum, Budapest. By Carole Reeves.

Ildiko Pap (centre) amidst UCL’s History of Medicine IBSc students at the Natural History Museum, Budapest. By Carole Reeves.

Ildikó Pap, one of the Hungarian researchers involved in the Vac-mummy project, acted as our tour guide and told us all about the mummies, related research on pre-antibiotics tuberculosis and the Museum’s collection. Viewing the remains of very recognisable individuals and hearing their detailed life stories was very moving, and caused some debate amongst us as to whether the crypt should have been sealed and left undisturbed in perpetuity, or whether indeed the Vác mummies should be reburied. We then travelled by train – a half hour journey from Budapest’s Nyugati Station – to the pretty town of Vác on the River Danube to visit the permanent exhibition of mummified townspeople and their stunning ornate coffins.

A Vác mummy. By Carole Reeves.

A Vác mummy. By Carole Reeves.

 

The costumes worn by the exhibited mummies are replicas of the originals, which are fragile and have undergone conservation but are contributing to another important aspect of this project – the history of costume and textiles.  After the museum visit, as it was a very wet and chilly day in mid-February, we visited a couple of the glorious cake shops dotted around the town square to sample Hungarian hospitality at its sweetest!

Address: Budapest, Hungarian Natural History Museum, Ludovika tér 2-6, 1083 Hungary

Website: http://www.nhmus.hu/en

Useful Links: 

For a Hungarian’s insight into the town, visit the mayor’s website: http://www.vac.hu/nyelv/eng/index.php?nyelv=eng

On the TB Mummy research project:
http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/628/

Map:

The town Vác:

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Vác