Cruising Through Medical History with Azamara Club Cruises

Photography by the authors

The complete cruise sails close to your interests. For some that may be the clichéd azure sea, talcum beach and swaying palms. For physicians a glimpse of the medical past might be a bonus. A cruise through Northern Europe, for example, brought our ship, the Azamara Journey, closer to medical museums than we would have thought possible. And it started early!

Rouen, France
Musée Flaubert et d'histoire de la médecine

Our cruise begins in a few hours. Our ship, tied down on the river Seine in Rouen, lies a mere mile from the old hospital (now a regional government office or Prefecture) where Gustave Flaubert was born. The building has one of the best medical museums in Europe. One mile away! What a shore excursion!

This wing of the old Hotel-Dieu was a lived-in apartment and smacks of the past. One of the rooms has a cabinet with artifacts as varied as the death mask of Napoleon (bottom row second left) to a working model of the guillotine.

An unusual exhibit is a bed for six people. The influence of the Church is immediately apparent. Some hospital rooms resemble a chapel. Flaubert’s father, the surgeon Achille-Cléophas Flaubert, was described as “one of the princes of the new realm of scientific medicine.” Dr. Flaubert became wealthy when the French Revolution changed public attitudes of those in power. In medicine, for example, the previously despised surgeons came into their own. His son, the famous author, Gustave Flaubert, died impoverished, but somehow the magnificent collections of the surgeon-father remained in the family and constitute the Flaubert Medical history Museum.

A fascinating display of Laënnec stethoscopes attracts the eye. It is no surprise to find those here in Normandy — Laënnec was born 250 miles away next door in Brittany.

The museum exhibits a fabric pelvis and infant. Apart from being used to teach the mechanics of childbirth to midwives, they are the only ones left in France. Below them lies a pair of obstetrical forceps, another understandable gesture of French pride since OB forceps were essentially the invention of the Chamberlen family who kept them a family secret for 125 years. The first of the dynasty Peter the Elder (1560 to 1631) delivered the wife of King Charles I of England in 1628.

Copenhagen, Denmark
Medical Museum of the University of Copenhagen

This museum spotlights the celebrated medical school in Denmark’s largest city. It has a particular curiosity for anyone interested in Lister’s antisepsis history: a Danish obstetrician, the son and grandson of obstetricians, Mathias Hieronymus Saxtorph was possibly the first on Europe’s continent to embrace Lister’s work. This was significant because Lister’s theories were not completely accepted in his own country.

Saxtorph was born in 1822. The museum has Saxtorph’s OB forceps and several of his carbolic sprays. The medical student leading us around translates some original documents from the mid 1800s that show the impressive drop in surgical fatalities when Lister’s beliefs were put into practice.

The museum has an Old World feel and wooden floors creak as you walk: a bed with compartments to immobilize fractures in which patients would lie for months to get a femur fracture to fuse; shelves with anatomical models made from Leonardo Di Vinci drawings; an anatomy lecture auditorium with a sign “No Smoking” that amuses our student who explains everyone smoked in that room — they had no choice if they wanted to kill the odor.

Berlin, Germany
Berlin Medical History Museum

Berlin’s Charity Hospital is a long hike from Museum Island where most tourists head first. There, the Pergamon Museum would interest physicians because its famous 2nd century B.C. Altar of Pergamon was “rescued’ by German archeologists in the 1880s from digs where Galen had based his gladiator clinic (which is why a visit to modern day Bergama in Turkey leaves the visitor feeling something is missing). The building was put up between the two World Wars especially for the Pergamon exhibits.

The attraction of the Charity Hospital museum is, of course, that the museum is based on the original Virchow collections: the pathological specimens of Rudolf Ludwig Karl Virchow who, born in 1821, may be the greatest pathologist who ever looked down a microscope. He extended the cell theory of disease as early as 1855 and described what we now call retinoblastoma as far back as 1864. It is inspiring to stand below his bust and stare at his microscope. The anatomical specimens seem as well preserved as any viewed in any recent medical school.

Stockholm, Sweden
Nobel Museum

The Nobel Museum opened in 2001; it sits in the old stock exchange building across from an ancient well in the oldest public square in Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s Old Town. It’s ironic that a foundation that gives, amongst other awards, the Nobel Peace Prize should be situated in the square that saw the Stockholm Bloodbath of 1520.

After the Danish-Swedish War, the victorious King Christian II of Denmark, in an act belying his name Christian, invited about 90 prominent Swedish citizens to a banquet in this square. Demonstrating the Vikings were still with us, he had his guests beheaded.

Inside the museum lies a haven of tranquility. A good start might be the museum café, Bistro Nobel — while waiting for your coffee, turn your chair over. All Nobel laureates are asked to sign the bottom of a chair in the café. Amongst the signatures on the bottom of one of our chairs was that of Sir Peter Mansfield who shared the Physiology or Medicine award of 2003 for his work on magnetic resonance imaging. We have added Sir Peter’s photograph to our image.

The museum runs short movies featuring random laureates, one being Fleming’s discovery of the medical uses of penicillin; it was fascinating to see him working and talking in his lab.

It was equally interesting to select another physician to notice how generous the museum is with its material. Robert Bárány who won the Nobel Prize in 1914 for his work on the vestibular apparatus, is a great example — and the only physician laureate who received notification while a prisoner of war.

The museum has on display his Nobel medal, his microscope and ENT mirror and other personal equipment, and his bust (shown in the third photograph to the left of what is Nobel’s death mask and above Marie Curie’s balanced weights). Above the death mask is Nobel’s last will and testament.

Below the mask is some of the fun stuff at the museum: you can go to the illuminated screens that display dates and find a decade that might interest you. You can select Medicine and, say, the decade 1951-1960. And there are the faces and the names that haunted any medical student of that era: Krebs (1953) whose work, the Kreb Cycle, made the understanding of molecular biology seem initially impossible; Waksman (1952) who discovered streptomycin, the first effective drug against tuberculosis; Forssmann (1956) for his work on heart catheterization — how students admired that man when his movie was presented in class. It showed his doing the unimaginable, threading a catheter into his own heart while he guided it by X-ray. It was the first time it had been done on a human.

Other memories for medical students included Ramón Y Cajal (1906) for, amongst other reasons, his exquisite drawings of brain cells; Ehrlich (1908) and his magic bullet; Pavlov (1904) and his dogs; Koch (1905) and his postulates; and the controversial addition of Macleod (instead of including the medical student Best) to Banting’s Award (1923) for the discovery of insulin.

What a great Azamara Journey through medical history.

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.