The Warren Anatomical Museum first opened at Harvard Medical School in 1847. The Museum's name comes from it's founder, John Collins Warren, and his father, John Warren. The Museum originated from John Collins Warren's personal teaching and research collection. Warren collected anatomical and pathological preparations to aid his practice and study. His collecting began as early as 1799. He expanded his collection to teach his Harvard medical students. Warren resigned in 1847 and donated the Museum to Harvard with a $5,000 endowment.

The Warren Museum became one of this country's leading medical museums. Physicians such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., J. B. S. Jackson, Henry Jacob Bigelow, and J. Collins Warren contributed to its holdings. Jackson was the Museum's first curator. He 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). The cabinet merged into the Warren Anatomical Museum circa 1870.

During the 19th- and early 20th- century, the Museum's specimens served as an important teaching tool at Harvard Medical School. In 1888 John Shaw Billings called the Warren Museum "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, the Museum moved with the Medical School to Boylston Street. In 1906 the Museum moved to Harvard's Longwood campus, where it occupied the upper floors of Gordon Hall.

In 2000, the Countway Library's Center for the History of Medicine took over curatorial responsibility for the Museum. The Library maintains a teaching gallery for the collection on its 5th floor.

John Collins Warren (1778-1856)
John Collins Warren was the son of John Warren, a surgeon and one of the Harvard Medical School founders. He graduated from Harvard College (1797). Warren 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 (1815). He served as the first Dean of HMS from 1816 to 1819. Warren spent his thirty-two-year Harvard career amassing a renowned collection of anatomical specimens. He retired in 1847.

With James Jackson, Warren founded Massachusetts General Hospital (1811). He was the hospital's Chief Surgeon from 1821 to 1847. There Warren performed the first public surgical demonstration using anesthesia (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 James Jackson, Warren prepared The Pharmacopeia of the Massachusetts Medical Society (1808). He founded the New-England Journal of Medicine and Surgery and Collateral Branches of Science (1812) with other Harvard professors.

Warren lobbied for the passage of "An act to protect the sepulchres of the dead, and to legalize the study of anatomy in certain cases" (1831). 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.”

Warren amassed a large private collection of human and animal specimens, prepared by him and purchased in the United States or abroad. His gift of that collection to Harvard (1847) established the Warren Anatomical Museum. This original donation included wet and dry preparations of normal and diseased anatomy, tumor specimens, human crania, and casts of the venous and lymphatic systems. Warren also maintained the private Warren Museum of Natural History on Chestnut Street in Boston.

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