The Warren Anatomical Museum collection is one of the last surviving anatomy and pathology museum collections associated with a medical school in the United States. No longer a brick and mortar museum, the collection lives on as a teaching and research resource. Within the larger Center for the History of Medicine, the collection serves to inform contemporary medicine, the Harvard health community, and the public.


History of the Warren Anatomical Museum

John Collins Warren (1778-1856) donated the collection that became the Warren Anatomical Museum (WAM) to Harvard Medical School (HMS) in 1847. HMS named the museum collection after Warren and his father, John Warren (1753-1815). The museum originated from John Collins Warren's personal teaching and research collection, which had been embedded at HMS as the Museum of the Massachusetts Medical College since 1816. Warren collected anatomical and pathological preparations to aid his practice and study. His collecting began as early as 1799 and he continually expanded his collection to teach his Harvard medical students. Warren resigned in 1847 and donated the museum he created to Harvard with a $5,000 endowment.

WAM became one of American's leading medical museums. Harvard physicians such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809-1894), J. B. S. Jackson (1806-1879), Henry Jacob Bigelow (1818-1890), and J. Collins Warren (1842-1927) contributed to its holdings. Jackson was the Museum's first curator and published the museum's A Descriptive Catalogue of the Warren Anatomical Museum (1870). Jackson was also curator of the Boston Society for Medical Improvement's pathological cabinet. He published that collection's A Descriptive Catalogue of the Anatomical Museum of the Boston Society for Medical Improvement (1847). Circa 1880, that cabinet merged into WAM.

During the 19th- and early 20th- century, the museum's specimens served as an important teaching tool at HMS. In 1888, John Shaw Billings called WAM "the best museum associated with a medical school in this country." When the museum opened for study in 1847, it was in a large room on North Grove Street in Boston. It was here, in 1861, that the collection was first opened to the public. In 1883, WAM moved with the Medical School to Boylston Street in Boston. In 1906, the Museum moved to Harvard's Longwood campus, where it occupied the upper floors of Gordon Hall.

Until 1999, WAM was administered by HMS's Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology. It is now an integral part of the Francis A. Countway Library's Center for the History of Medicine.


John Collins Warren (1778-1856)

John Collins Warren was the son of John Warren, a surgeon and HMS's primary founder. He graduated from Harvard College in 1797 and studied medicine under his father and in Europe from 1799-1802. He received honorary medical degrees from St. Andrews in Scotland (1802) and HMS (1819). Warren became Harvard's Hersey Professor of Anatomy and Surgery upon the death of his father in 1815. He served as the first Dean of HMS from 1816 to 1819. Warren spent his entire thirty-two-year career at Harvard, retiring in 1847.

With James Jackson (1777-1867), Warren founded Massachusetts General Hospital in 1811. He was the hospital's Chief Surgeon from 1821 to 1847. There Warren performed the first public surgical demonstration using anesthesia in 1846. As a surgeon, Warren excelled in vascular surgery, excising tumors, and amputating diseased bone and tissue. His 1837 Surgical Observations on Tumours, with Cases and Operations detailed his methods. With Jackson, Warren prepared The Pharmacopeia of the Massachusetts Medical Society in 1808. He founded the New-England Journal of Medicine and Surgery and Collateral Branches of Science in 1812 with other Harvard professors.

Warren lobbied for the passage of the 1831 Massachusetts' law "An act to protect the sepulchres of the dead, and to legalize the study of anatomy in certain cases." This act made anatomical dissection legal in the Massachusetts. It was the first of its kind in the United States. Warren's dying request was his own medical dissection. He asked that his heart, spleen, and prostate receive "particular attention." Warren bequeathed his skeleton to Harvard as a lesson to “mortality and science.”.

The Countway Library’s Center for the History of Medicine has extensive holdings relating to John Collins Warren. His museum collections and their manuscript documentation are still part of the Warren Anatomical Museum collection. The Center holds a collection of Warren’s personal papers and the administrative records from his deanship.


Notable Warren Anatomical Museum Collections


The skull, life cast, and tamping iron of Phineas Gage

Phineas Gage (1823-1860) is one of neurology’s most famous cases. Gage sustained a traumatic brain injury in 1848 when a 3’ 7” inch iron rod fired through his head. The accident cost Gage an eye and altered his personality, but he survived. Gage’s physician, John Harlow (1819-1907), donated the skull and tamping iron to the Warren Anatomical Museum in 1868.

Read more about Gage's case.

The Boston Phrenological Society Collection

The Boston Phrenological Society began in 1832 to celebrate the life and work of Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (1776–1832). Starting with Spurzheim's lecture collection, the Society developed a cabinet of phrenological castings. They published an 1835 Catalogue of Phrenological Specimens. John Collins Warren purchased the Society’s cabinet in 1849 and added it to his eponymous museum. Approximately 250 of the castings remain in the Warren Anatomical Museum collection at the Center for the History of Medicine.

The Boston Society for Medical Improvement

The Boston Society for Medical Improvement had an expansive pathological cabinet. WAM's first curator, J. B. S. Jackson (1806-1879), was the Society’s curator as well. In 1847, Jackson published A Descriptive Catalogue of the Anatomical Museum of the Boston Society for Medical Improvement., which details the first 954 specimens in the cabinet. The Society’s collection grew to around 1200 items. Circa 1880, Jackson facilitated the transfer of the cabinet to the Warren Anatomical Museum (now part of the Center for the History of Medicine). Harvard Medical School formally accepted the cabinet in 1889.

Dickinson-Belskie Obstetrical Model Collection

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History donated the Dickinson-Belskie collection to the Center for the History of Medicine in 2007. Obstetrician Robert Latou Dickinson (1861-1950) and sculptor Abram Belskie (1907-1988) created the models to teach birth anatomy to health care professionals and the public. The Cleveland Health Museum acquired the models from Dickinson circa 1950. The Health Museum was later absorbed into the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. The collection contains over 200 models. It includes Dickinson’s models of the average American man and woman, “Norma and Normann.” The Center for the History of Medicine also has Robert Latou Dickinson papers.

Pelvis and Proximal Femurs of Charles Lowell

The Warren Anatomical Museum collection has a mounted hip preparation formerly of Charles Lowell (d.1858). Lowell dislocated his hip in a horse-riding accident in 1821. Dissatisfied with his physicians' care, Lowell entered into a well-publicized malpractice case. Lowell took issue with the medical evidence. He requested an examination of his hip joint after his death. Harvard physicians Henry Oliver and Jonathan Mason Warren (1811-1867) conducted the autopsy. Warren’s son, John Collins Warren (1842-1927) later donated the hip preparation to the museum. More can be found in the exhibit: Charles Lowell’s Hip: An Early Case of (alleged) Medical Malpractice.


For additional information, please submit a Reference Request to the Center for the History of Medicine.