Thursday, March 30, 2023

International Museum of Surgical Science, 1524 North Lake Shore Drive, Chicago.

Dr. Max Thorek founded the International College of Surgeons (ICS) in 1935 to promote the exchange of surgical knowledge and foster understanding and goodwill worldwide. He had an equally noble goal in establishing the International Museum of Surgical Science ─ to enrich people's lives.
Dr. Max Thorek
Beginning in 1950, through the efforts of Dr. Thorek, the Museum received donations of objects and artwork from many of the national sections of the ICS, individual surgeons and collectors, and other institutions. Shipments of artifacts, paintings, sculptures, and books arrived, and the Museum began to take shape. A historic lakeside mansion was acquired to house the Museum adjacent to the ICS headquarters.

The Museum opened to the public on September 9, 1954. One of the first exhibits to be installed was the Hall of Immortals, containing twelve large stone statues of significant figures in medicine and the allied sciences. In further reverence to great scientists, surgeons and discoveries of the past, a Hall of Murals was created with a series of large paintings depicting the development of surgical science through the ages.

In 1959, the Museum marked the dedication of galleries devoted to France, Mexico, Spain and the Netherlands, with many more national rooms inaugurated over the years. The founding leaders of the Museum hoped to make the collection meaningful to the public by organizing exhibits by nation. Each room, hallway, and stair landing was devoted to one nation or region's historical collection to trace a particular nation's contribution to surgery.

In 1990, new exhibits were developed based on historical themes and surgical disciplines. This type of exhibit provides a more appropriate historical context for the collections. The "Anatomy in the Gallery" exhibition program, developed in 1998 to introduce a contemporary art element into the historical Museum, presents work by contemporary artists dealing with various medically related themes. The exhibitions include work of a challenging and innovative nature about anatomy, death, disease/wellness, disability, and other medical issues.

Over the past decade, the International Museum of Surgical Science has significantly strengthened its educational programs and exhibits and conserved its noteworthy collections and historic landmark building. The Museum looks forward to continuing this progress and to a future of bringing the international aspects of science, history and art to an increasing audience from the entire world.

The historic lakeside mansion at 1524 N. Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, which is now the International Museum of Surgical Science, was constructed in 1917 under the direction of Eleanor Robinson Countiss to house her family. Her father, an executive of the Diamond Match Company, generously provided the funds to build the home.

The elegant structure was designed to follow the historical lines of Le Petit Trianon, a French chateau on the grounds of Versailles completed in 1770 for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The noted Chicago architect Howard Van Doren Shaw was hired to design the Countiss mansion with modifications, including a fourth floor added to the original design, adding a door on the side street, and opening up the northernmost bay for a carriage drive.

Original interior finishes of Italian marble and cut stone; decorative plasterwork, metal fixtures and hardware; eight marble fireplaces; and a gilded metal grand staircase are among the features which have been preserved.

The Countiss family was the sole owner of the building until 1950 when it was acquired by Dr. Max Thorek and the International College of Surgeons. After several years of renovating the building and forming the Museum collection, the Museum opened its doors to the public for the first time in 1954 under the direction of Dr. Max Thorek.

One of the few remaining lakefront mansions, and the only one open to the public, the building received historic status in 1988, is listed in the National Register and the Illinois Register of Historic Places and is a City of Chicago Landmark.


The Museum's four floors are filled with extraordinary artifacts paintings, and sculptures that interpret the primitive and modern healing practices of Eastern and Western civilizations. The Museum's collections and exhibits portray the mysteries and milestones that have shaped modern surgical science.
Amputation─Trephine set (a saw used to remove a circle of tissue or bone. (circa 1860)

Medical artifacts, apparatus and instruments comprise most of the material in the Museum's collections. Over 7,000 medical artifacts spanning centuries of worldwide medical history, from acupuncture to X-ray therapy, are represented in the collections. Among the exceptional artifacts is an Austrian amputation saw with a reversible blade (c.1500); original X-rays taken by radiology pioneer Emil Grubbé (c.1910); the Lindbergh perfusion pump, which enabled doctors to keep organs functioning outside the body, invented by the renowned aviator Charles Lindbergh and Nobel Prize-winning surgeon Alexis Carrel (1935); and a unique collection of heart valves donated by Dr. Juro Wada (c.1960-80).
Fine art is featured in the collections through over 600 paintings, prints and sculptures, primarily portraits of individuals and historical depictions of specific procedures or events. Highlights include a portrait of Dr. Edward Jenner by John Russell (1790) and the original plaster cast of the death mask of Napoleon (1821). Significant artworks were commissioned by the Museum for the collections in 1950-53, including the Hall of Immortals and the Hall of Murals.
An Iron Lung

The Museum Library contains over 5,000 books and bound journals, including extremely rare early medical books from the 16th to 18th centuries.

The manuscript collection contains over 650 letters and papers from prominent figures in medical history, extending over four centuries, donated by Dr. Max Thorek in 1954. This collection includes documents from Edward Jenner, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Guy, Laennec, Langenback, Bergmann, Billroth, Malpighi, Rush, Wistar, and others.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.


  1. Thank you. I never knew about this museum. I must check this out in person.

  2. I first learned about this museum in 1977(?), when it became one of the stops on the Chicago Transit Authority's "Culture Bus" North route. This ran with articulated buses from the front of the Art Institute on N. Michigan Ave. on Sundays & holidays. It began with one route, and gradually expanded to three. The fare was a CTA SuperTransfer, which could be obtained from any operating vehicle.


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