Venturing into Amsterdam's Vrolik Medical Museum

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The city of Amsterdam is renowned for its museums, although the Vrolik may be less known. Anatomy museums remain part of every medical student's life, but the Vrolik shows the horrors of embryology gone wrong that recent graduates might not have been exposed to.

Photography by the authors.

Note: Some of the images contained in this article show congenital abnormalities that some people may find concerning.

The city of Amsterdam is renowned, of course, for its museums: the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh and … the Vrolik. The Vrolik? It’s a long story so let’s start at the end!

Just as the British Museum began from the private collection of a physician, Sir Hans Sloane (he bequeathed his assortment of 70,000 objects to King George II in 1753; his heirs got 20,000 pounds sterling in exchange), so began the Vrolik from the personal collection of the two Doctors Vrolik.

Curator Dr. Laurens de Rooy welcomes us on Good Friday 2013. He has kindly opened the museum just for Physician’s Money Digest. The Vrolik Museum is named after the father and son 19th century Dutch anatomists Gerard (1775—1859) and Willem Vrolik (1801–1863) — both served as professors of anatomy at the Athenaeum Illustre of Amsterdam, the precursor of the University of Amsterdam. The Athenaeum acquired the original collection in the 1860s and in 1984 some of the exhibits went on show at the Amsterdam Medical Center.

Since the redesign of the museum in 2012, the father and son collections are now on display together for the first time since Willem Vrolik died. Willem’s special interest was teratology, which is why there are so many congenital abnormalities on display.

De Rooy is an earnest young professor with a 2009 PhD in the History of Anatomy with particular reference to the late 19th and early 20th century. He has written two books on medical history, one detailing the work of Lodewijk Bolk, a prominent European anatomist who came after the Vroliks and some of whose exhibits are incorporated in this museum. (Bolk was the first to write about dermatomes when he discovered the relationship of skin and muscle innervation to the spinal cord.)

Anatomy museums remain part of every medical student’s life and physicians might be forgiven thinking “Been there, done that!” But doctors who have graduated from the relatively recent medical schools in the United States might not have been exposed to the disappointments — horrors, really — of embryology that has gone terribly wrong.

For that the medical student would need to look at collections from the Middle Ages, a time when the small populations in villages showed the results of in-breeding or when there weren’t government agencies to monitor toxins like amount of lead in water pipes or maintain the health of the pregnant mother. Or perhaps we don’t know why. Certainly when the train came to Europe in the 1850s it opened up the land so young people were no longer limited socially to persons in their village.

The images on the next page may be concerning for some as they will show malformations.

And maybe the number of pathological specimens in the Museum Vrolik is artificially high because both Vroliks practiced obstetrics and the younger one was specifically interested in congenital malformations — also both were well known across the Dutch East Indies and often received specimens from the Far East.

“The two anatomists were so different,” says de Rooy. “The father was a people person. He joined every organization involved in science and medicine. In this way he was everywhere. Today he would have had at least 500+ connections in Linked-In! The 1800-1850 were times of turmoil in the Netherlands: Early we were a French kingdom then under the Royal Family of William of Orange and throughout it all he kept his network. He has the skeleton of Napoleon’s lion over there in that cabinet, a gift from Napoleon’s brother who became our king.”

Gerard, the father, the networker, wore many hats: an obstetrician who practiced general surgery and a botanist interested in gardens and zoology, but his work shop was the hospital and his anatomy lab. He wrote up his case studies diligently. He had wide but not deep interests. He was famous but his student classes would often number only six or seven a year.

The son, Willem, was less of a generalist. He was more focused on scientific research and comparative anatomy.

“He never stepped out of his father’s shadow, but he did use his father’s network and he did wonder about the general laws that governed embryology,” de Rooys says. “He called what happens to an embryo the ‘life force’ and believed by studying malformations as examples of how the life shaping force went wrong you could understand what was meant to happen. He thought too much force would give, for example, conjoined twins and too little, possibly, anencephaly.”

If their belief seems innocent today it was scientific thinking well beyond the dogma of the times’ old wives’ tales that congenital malformations were caused by “sinful thoughts.”

We mention some of the references we’d seen to the museum as an online resource group in a category of “Medical Oddities.”

“We are not a freak show,” de Rooys says. “You have to view the Vrolik Museum in the context we are in a medical school with teaching duties. We are not next to the Torture Museum! We are a significant museum because of our historical context and the wealth of our pathological and comparative anatomy specimens.”

The wealth becomes immediately obvious: the development of the fetus, of the brain and of the teeth, for starters. Examples of how fashion damages the body from “corset liver” to “Chinese foot.” Exhibits of stone babies (lithopedion) and benzoars. Though rare, the latter of calcified gastric matted hair from animals was thought to have the property of detecting poison in drinks and eagerly carried by Medieval royalty to foil attempts by subjects equally eager to end their reign. Bladder stones, the oldest from 1588, some so big one can only wonder how much their owners suffered.

We are not talking about the Good old Days here. Ways embryology lets you down: the giant hand of acromegaly, the small stature of dwarfism, mermaid syndrome (sirenomelia) and Cyclops baby (cyclopia) — and of course those events that horrify attendants and families, the congenital abnormalities where embryos fuse.

An elderly anatomist we know once told us, “You wouldn’t be able to harvest a collection like the Vrolik’s today. It took the standards and the energies of the Middle Ages.”

How to get there: It’s easy. From Centraal Station take the metro 54 direction and step out at metrostop Holendrecht. Then walk to the main entrance of the AMC (the academic hospital of Amsterdam — the big building on the right side of the metro line when you arrive at Holendrecht). Walk to the main entrance of the AMC and ask at the front desk to show you the way to the museum.

Questions? Contact the museum by clicking here.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.