Explore the Cutting Edge at Chicago's International Museum of Surgical Science | Midwest Living
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Explore the Cutting Edge at Chicago's International Museum of Surgical Science

Creepy or cool? It can go either way at the International Museum of Surgical Science.

October is a popular month at the Chicago-based International Museum of Surgical Science, where ancient bloodletting knives and Civil War-Era bone saws rest in oak cases and human skulls stare out from glass cabinets.

Housed in an elaborate 1917 limestone mansion in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood, the museum’s 7,000 medical artifacts captivate daily visitors and guests on the Candlelit Mansion Tour and Morbid Curiosities Surgical History Tour offered year-round. For one night in October, Chicago magician Jeanette Andrews will also perform her celebrated “sensory illusions” here.

Photo courtesy of International Museum of Surgical Science.

Photo courtesy of International Museum of Surgical Science.

In addition to tools and artifacts, the museum displays sculptures, prints and paintings of significant individuals and events in medical history. Among the most stunning: 12 massive murals illustrating surgery throughout the ages, including a dramatic scene from premodern Europe in which a man’s friends hold him down while a doctor amputates his leg. 

Justina Doyle, the museum’s director of education and events, uses it as a teaching tool on guided tours, inviting hardy guests in each group to re-enact a pre-Civil War amputation. “We have some pretty powerful moments,” Justina says of the tours, which are booked ahead at a small additional fee.

You can also wander the four floors and read the placards or download an app that offers additional details about the collection and the building.

Located on the inner (not the main) Lake Shore Drive, the museum can be a bit hard to find, and parking can be a challenge. Plan to use your GPS and walk a few blocks (imss.org).

Knife exhibit. Photo courtesy of International Museum of Surgical Science.

Knife exhibit. Photo courtesy of International Museum of Surgical Science.

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