There has been a museum at the Charité for over 100 years. Its originator, the renowned pathologist Rudolf Virchow, opened it in 1899 as "The Pathological Museum", filling it with 23,066 specimens by the end of 1901. The specimen were displayed in huge vitrines on five floors showing almost all diseases then known. Series of the same disease forms demonstrated variations of particular illnesses. The development of a disease became clear. Illnesses such as tuberculosis could be shown as they affected specific organs. An impressive three dimensional textbook of pathology had been born.
Rudolf Virchow had fought many years for his museum. When he took the chair in pathology at the Charité in 1856 the collection included some 1,500 specimens that had been collected by his predecessors. By taking over other collections of specimens, but primarily by the increased activity at his own institute in dissection and the preparation of specimens, he created a collection that was without comparison. Virchow's motto was "No day without a specimen." Very quickly it became clear that soon the growing collection would no longer fit in the building that had been erected especially for him. Structural weaknesses added to the problem. The year 1896 marked the beginning of a large expansion phase at the Charité which included a new complex for pathology. The first building was the Museum with a space of 2000 m².
Virchow wanted to use his museum in three ways. On the top three floors he planned to have a teaching and research collection. Students and colleagues would be able to view the specimens for their own studies. On the two lower floors, an exhibition would be open to the public. In the lecture hall Virchow presented specimens to his students from all levels of the museum in order to let his listeners, as he said, learn by "seeing medically."
Rudolf Virchow attributed the greatest of importance to his collection of pathological-anatomical specimens. He called it "his dearest child." The abundance of disease profiles that could be found there documented for him the state of knowledge that had been reached in his field of pathology. Moreover, in this way he could refer to his own life's work in an impressive way.
The specimens offered him direct evidence he could use to communicate his knowledge to others. On the one hand he used the specimens to teach his students, and on the other, he made a large portion of the collection available to the public.
The specimen is the basic object of all medical collecting. Beginning in the middle of the 16th century, specimens were prepared and stored primarily at the anatomical research and teaching institutions of the universities, the anatomical theaters. Here they served to demonstrate the structures of the "normal" human body.
At the beginning of the 19th century, however, the perspective changed. Medical researchers became increasingly interested in the diseased body. Smaller specimen collections appeared, especially at the newly founded English medical schools. These collections document the scientific field of work of a pathologist. Rudolf Virchow was inspired by the British example to build up his own - but much more comprehensive - collection.
Virchow wanted to increase knowledge about health and disease among the populace with a publicly accessible collection. In this part of the museum he showed specimens with particularly striking signs of disease and presented rare diseases - for example, malformations - in larger series. In some places he added models in plaster or wax to he showcases and explained certain conditions with accompanying texts.
After Rudolf Virchow had died in 1902, the Pathological Museum was kept open to the public until 1904. World War I and the following economic crisis in Germany put an end to this practice. From now on the museum served for a longer time exclusively as a teaching and study collection for medical education purposes. All of Virchow’s successors, however, continued to follow the collecting strategy of the Charité Institute of Pathology. Finally, around 35.000 pathologic-anatomical specimens filled the museum in the beginning of World War II.
War casualties hit both the museums and its staff with brutal force. Only some 1.800 specimens “survived” the inferno without greater damage. After the war had ended, the museum could no longer be used in its original function for decades. Charité pathologists, however, made great efforts to build up the specimen collection again.
After the wall came down, considerations became more concrete again to open a museum at the original location. Albeit, the Charité officials decided not to revitalize the original Pathological Museum à la Virchow, but to create a conceptually much different and broader orientated “Berlin Museum of Medical History” which was finally opened in the same site in 1998.
Today, the museum presents some 750 mostly pathological dry and wet specimens in a large show room. The eight huge show cases still stem from Virchow’s time.
Each side of a show cases addresses by a bigger human organ, like the heart or the brain, or a larger functional body unit, like the respiratory or digestive tract. In the first section, the viewer will be introduced to the normal healthy conditions of the respective body structure. Then, his or her eyes are caught by a spectrum of pathological findings in the organic specimens. In the last compartment of each show case a special disease is highlighted, e. g. the heart attack in case of the heart or the liver cirrhosis for the liver.
In two introductory showcases some impressive instruments, pictures and specimens give basic information on the principles of dissecting and the fabric of specimens. A special wall table of information addresses the ethical dimensions of collecting and dealing with human remains in this public museum.