Mayo Clinic Medical Models: Education, Science and Art in Wax
The Mayo Clinic Historical Unit (MHU) is responsible for an extensive collection of historical artifacts and archival materials detailing more than one hundred years of Mayo Clinic history and its global impact on medical science. The MHU collection includes approximately 2,800 – 3,000 medical wax models, historically known as Medical Moulage. The models, currently a closed collection due to condition issues, are stored on the mezzanine level in the Mitchell Student Center. (Figure 1 and more below)
According to Professor Dr. Thomas Schnalke of the Berlin Medical Museum, “…moulages are not only impressive three-dimensional study aids, but witnesses to a highly developed art of medical teaching. They represent works of considerable cultural and medical historical value.” 1 The Mayo collection embodies—in number and quality—an important contribution to the field of medical moulage. Moreover, it showcases an American artistic expertise in moulage, as well as one of Mayo Clinic’s many special roles in medical history.
The models depict normal, pathological and traumatic conditions. As experts in the field acknowledge, the models are as much works of art as they are educational tools, with extraordinary detail and richness. Research into the history of medical moulage and, as far as possible, into the state of such collections in the United States and in Europe, indicates that the Mayo Clinic wax model collection may be one of the largest of a shrinking number of extant collections.
Many of the models reflect real cases, patients treated at Mayo Clinic, and were used by Mayo physicians to illustrate presentations at medical meetings around the country. A large number were also on display for many years in the Mayo Medical Museum. Some models are still on display in the Historical Suite, the Mayo Patient Education Center and Heritage Hall, visited by thousands of Mayo Clinic patients every year. (Figure 2)
The more elaborate models illustrate progressive steps in surgical procedures, for example, a series of full-size torsos showing an appendectomy, or heads demonstrating cranial surgery. Others show dermatological diseases, physical anomalies, organs, anatomical structures and parts of the body, removed tumors, and, most memorably from the Mayo Medical Museum, real farm accident cases. They can be at once graphic and strangely beautiful—rich, yet humane depictions of a unique moment in the human condition. (Figure 3)
The MHU staff continues to gather information about early years of production, but the history of the models becomes more clear beginning in the mid-1930’s. In addition to starring in exhibits at medical meetings, the models also played a major role in the “Century of Progress: Medical Science Exhibits” at the 1933-1934 Chicago World’s Fair. Eben J. Carey, Chief of the Medical Section in the Hall of Science, wrote a description of the Mayo Clinic exhibit: “A series of wax models demonstrated the more important steps in the technic [sic] of operations on the stomach, colon, appendix and gallbladder. Persons who have parted with the appendix or who were contemplating such an operation were able to see how it is done.” 2
The success of the World’s Fair exhibits led directly to the founding of the Mayo Medical Museum in 1935. The models proved to be equally educational and popular in Rochester. “Dozens of patients of Mayo Clinic find exhibits in [the] Medical Museum an aid to convalescence. Pointing out gruesome wax reproductions of diseased human bodies, they tell listeners with pride, ‘That’s what I had.’” 3 The display of the life-like and accurate models had another benefit for at least one Mayo Medical Museum visitor: Struck by the similarity of the features of his wife to those of models depicting the face of a woman with Myxedema (a condition of hypothyroidism) before and after treatment, he asked his somewhat-skeptical Mayo physician to schedule an appointment for her. Tests confirmed a diagnosis of Myxedema, not only in his wife—an advanced case—but also early signs of the condition in two of his daughters.4
The Mayo Clinic models were created by expert in-house artists circa 1920 to the 1980’s. Mayo Art Section reports to the Board of Governors state that 588 models were made between 1925 and 1933. The average number per year was about 65 models, but the 1930 report noted an astonishing 109 creations.5 The artists who made the models worked both for the Medical Illustration Department and with Dr. Arthur Bulbulian in the area of prosthetics, designing artificial ears, noses, fingers and hands for Mayo Clinic patients.
One of the early artists was Nellie Starkson, a Rochester native who had been recruited by Dr. Will to the Mayo Clinic and trained to create medical wax models in the 1920’s. A Chicago Daily Times article noted that Miss Starkson “had her first American Medical Association exhibit in 1925. And most of the wax models of human anatomy shown at the Mayo exhibit at the Century of Progress were her sculptures.” 6 She left the Clinic in 1936 for a job as an “artist-preparator” at the Field Museum in Chicago.
Sculptor Leonard Knudson was hired in 1936, followed by Martin Roessler who joined the Clinic in 1937. On his retirement 32 years later Knudson estimated that he had made “some 2,000 wax models, the majority for medical exhibits by medical staff members.” 7 For his work Knudson was elected to the Association of Medical Illustrators in 1968, the first medical sculptor to be so honored. (Figure 4) Roessler won numerous awards and commendations for the excellence of his medical models and frequently traveled to meetings with physicians to set up and dismantle the exhibits.8 Peter McConahey, a designer still working for Mayo Illustration and Design, trained with Roessler in the 1970’s to learn moulage techniques. He recalls that the last models were created around 1983.
The rise of color photography led to the decline in the popularity and use of medical moulage in Europe and the United States by the 1960’s. Many collections, particularly those that were not on display but used mainly for teaching purposes, were consigned to store rooms; some were lost or destroyed, particularly those in Europe during World War II. 9 At the Mayo Clinic the Medical Museum was closed in 1986 and patient education changed to a less pathology-focused approach. Most of the models from the museum exhibits, along with those in the Medical Illustration Section, went into storage.
The wax model collection was only recently acquired by MHU, transferred from Medical Illustration. Lack of curation and benign neglect over the past forty years due to the changing face of medical education—color photography, moving images, plastic modeling, etc.—have left much of the collection in poor condition. Problems such as grime and dust, cracking and some breakage are pervasive. (Figure 5) Inadequate housing and storage environments, particularly temperature control, have also posed serious threats. The majority of the condition problems facing the models can be attributed to age, their peripatetic history since the Mayo Medical Museum closed (they were moved several times before finally being placed under MHU’s auspices), their storage environment and their immediate housing.
The works are stored in their original containers: acidic, metal-reinforced, cardboard, file cabinet-style drawers with particle board compartments built inside to fit the general size of most models. (Figure 6) No padding was included as the original builders probably did not expect the collection to be moved. Loss of container integrity over the years has allowed dust and grime to migrate inside the drawers and settle on a majority of the models; the collection overall requires an extensive cleaning. As a consequence of their current condition problems, the collection may not be accessed, handled or used for any research, exhibit or educational purpose until proper conservation is completed. (Figure 7)
MHU recognized that the current state of the wax models required a professional evaluation of their overall physical condition and their needs for treatment, storage and long-term preservation by a conservation expert. Accordingly, we submitted a grant for funds to conduct a detailed conservation survey of the collection to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) in October 2008. Although the grant was not funded, it served as an impetus for Mayo Clinic to pay for a general conservation assessment of exhibit, storage and building conditions that affect collections in MHU, Plummer Library/History of Medicine Library, and Heritage Hall areas. The results of this general survey will help us shape our goals for conservation activities in the future. As for the fate of the wax models, we expect that the report from the general conservation survey will contain recommendations for the care and curation of the collection. We will use these, along with many positive suggestions from the IMLS reviewers, to improve and re-submit our grant.
- Diseases in Wax: The History of the Medical Moulage. Thomas Schnalke; translated by Kathy Spatschek. ([Chicago]: Quintessence Publishing Co., 1995), p. 206.
- A Century of Progress: Medical Science Exhibits. (Chicago: Wisconsin Cuneo Press and the John F. Cuneo Company, 1936), pp. 120-121.
- MHU-0676: Subject Files Collection, “Wax Models”, Chicago Daily Times, Tuesday, July 27, 1937, p. 12.
- MHU-0676: Subject Files Collection, “Wax Models”, letter, March 23, 1977.
- MHU-0002: Mayo Clinic Board of Governors; Subgroup 01: Board Annual Reports.
- MHU-0676: Subject Files Collection, “Wax Models”, undated clipping from an unidentified newspaper.
- Mayovox, October 1979.
- Mayovox, July 1980.
- Schnalke, pp. 203-206; and passim.
Karen F. Koka, Mayo Clinic Historical Unit