Indiana Medical History Museum gives voice to specimen collection

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- The Indiana Medical History Museum is giving a voice to the specimens of former mental health patients. In a new exhibit open to the public, you can read human stories behind the museum’s collection of brains, hearts, lungs and more. The research for this project began in 2015.

The specimens are from autopsies in the Pathological Department of Central State Hospital, which were preserved for research on mental illnesses and helped teach students and physicians. The specimens previously were displayed with clinical descriptions, which were important for education resources. However, Halter said it's time for a change.

“When the building was a lab those labels made sense,” said Sarah Halter, the executive director of Indiana Medical History Museum.

Halter says in some cases there are more information than others. For some patients, there’s a wealth of information. This gives visitors of the museum a chance to learn who these patients were and what their daily life was like.

“One patient stood out to me, named Lena, who began have seizures when she was a teenager,” said Halter.

Halter learned Lena worked peeling potatoes and at one time worked in a factory.  She was admitted to the hospital in 1922 when her husband noticed she had been behaving strangely.

So far, there are 53 life stories in this room, like Lena’s.

“Burton was a farmer here in Marion County and he fought in the Spanish-American War. In 1898 he was shot in the head. He didn’t die,” said Halter.

Halter and her team continue to look through medical records and newspaper clippings to learn more who these patients were in the early 1800s-1900s, in hopes we remember these patients for their story, not their tumor or brain injury.

“We’re still doing research. We’re still finding out new things about these people. I want people to see the humanity in them," said Halter.

The Indiana Medical History Museum is celebrating 50 years this year.

The Rehumanizing Specimen Collection is a permanent exhibit. If you would like to learn more about the museum, click here. The Indiana Medical History Museum visits are by guided tours only. Tours start on the hour and last one hour.

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