By Joy Neighbors
Step back in time to a facility that has remained unchanged for more than 100 years.
Original medical artifacts and human specimens from the late 1800s remained on the shelves when The Old Pathology Building was abandoned in the 1950s. Located on the grounds of the former Central State Hospital for the Insane in Indianapolis, the Indiana Medical History Museum in Indianapolis houses the oldest surviving historically-intact pathology facility in the country.
One of the first to study mental illness
In 1895, Central State’s administrator George F. Edenharter decided the hospital warranted a building dedicated to the study of the physical causes of mental illness. Built in 1896, The Old Pathology Building is comprised of 19 rooms where doctors and medical students studied and defined diseases like schizophrenia, epilepsy and hysteria. In its day, the department was considered second in the nation to John Hopkins University’s medical facility.
In the early 1900s, syphilis and its effects on the central nervous system and the brain was the main subject studied since more than 30 percent of Central State inmates had the disease. Doctors and students traveled from around the country to attend lectures and autopsies dealing with this disorder in an attempt to gain a better understanding of its affects on mental health and neurosis.
When Central State Hospital was founded in 1848, it was the first Indiana hospital dedicated to serving the mentally ill. One hundred years later, the complex housed 2,500 Hoosiers. By the 1970s, such facilities were closing due to declining patient population. Several buildings on the Central State campus were razed in the late 1970s leaving only a few of architectural significance. In 1971, The Old Pathology Building became a museum, and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1994, Central State Hospital closed its doors and most of the 164 acres was sold for development.
A tour of The Old Pathology Building includes the anatomical museum where original brain and tumor specimens are kept. See where medical students worked in three clinical labs extracting and examining organs, tissues and bodily fluids from deceased hospital patients. There’s also an early medical library and a “modern” 1896 morgue. Sit in the original seats where students viewed more than 2,300 autopsies in the state-of-the-art 100-seat amphitheater as doctors attempted to better diagnose and understand mental diseases.
Not for the squeamish
The brains and tumors seen floating in glass specimen jars filled with formaldehyde were removed from patients and used to advance research and the understanding mental illness. Today, the museum is working to humanize those patients of Central State and research is being done to attribute personal stories to those who lived and died in the hospital.
Last summer, the museum unveiled a new exhibit, “Rehumanizing the Indiana Medical History Museum Specimen Collection.” An index card accompanies each specimen on display and tells a more personal story about each patient. Stories may include where the patient had lived in Indiana, when they were admitted and why, and what they had died of. The museum hopes this helps visitors connect with the humanity of the patients who aided medical research.
Searching for missing graves
Working with Ball State University’s Applied Anthropology Laboratories, the museum hopes to find missing graves in the hospital’s first cemetery. In the 1950s, ground crews removed cemetery stones and markers so they could care for the property in a more efficient manner leaving hundreds of patients, who died between 1896 and 1905, unidentified. Ball State University students are using ground-penetrating radar to locate these graves. A fund is set up to assist with the cost of locating, identifying and memorializing those who were buried here from 1896 -1905.
While this is not a place for the faint of heart, the Indiana Medical History Museum was mentioned in January on USA Today’s 2020 list of Ten Unique and Quirky Museums Around the United States. Whether you’re interested in early 20th-Century science, medical research, mental illness, or enjoy a touch of the macabre, this museum should be on your bucket list. Tours of the museum are offered Wednesday through Saturday at the top of the hour. Educational school tours are also available.