Veteran WoWasis readers know we love medical museums (read our review of Bangkok’s grisly Siriraj Medical Museum). In South America, we stumbled on a terrific one in the colonial city of Cuenca, Ecuador. After Quito and the Galapagos, Cuenca is the most visited spot in Ecuador, but if you’re looking to enjoy a medical museum in Cuenca, you won’t find it in your Lonely Planet Guide. It’s not listed.
That’s too bad, because after a couple of days of looking at cultural museums and old churches in Cuenca, you may want something different. You’ll find it here at the Cuenca Medical Museum. To visit, cross the Rio Tomebamba from the old town, over the Benigno Malo street bridge. Turn left (east) and look for the sign that says “Museo Historia De La Medicina Guillermo Aguilar M.” You’ll be entering a courtyard of the old San Vicente de Paulo Hospital, built in 1876. Covering two stories, the collection is a ramshackle display of medical devices dating from 1895 to about 1970. There’s even an early Atari 130 XE Computer.
The place is loaded with mystique. There’s an old, decaying iron lung (pulmundiacero) just sitting there outside a window, a birthing chair for expectant mothers that looks like an inquisition device, and an instant anesthesia device that’s a hybrid of two devices, among hundreds of the items displayed. You’ll even find a mummified 5 year-old girl who died of an intestinal ailment and what’s left of an 8 week old. It’s a wild way to spend a couple of hours. The museum was founded in 1982 and restoration on the old hospital was begun in 1984 to house the eventual collection. It was opened to the public in 1996. There are approximately 10,000 items in the collection and exhibitions change every two months.
Presiding over it all is Sra. Cecilia Castro, who takes your one dollar admission from a little office at the top of the stairs (by now you’ve already passed the iron lung) and is willing to tell you everything she knows about the history of the museum and its collection. In Spanish, of course. But she’s ingratiating in any language, and is delighted to greet visitors. Her favorites pieces are the wood-burning Ecogit autoclave from 1985 and the phenomenal Radiguet & Massiot wood and marble x-ray machine that dates from the same era. Señora Castro told us that Quito had a medical museum as well, but it’s smaller. And sure enough it does, the Museo Nacional de Medicina “Eduardo Estrella.” Judging by the map, it’s not in Quito’s tourist area, which would seem to make Cuenca’s museum more accessible to the western visitor.
You’ll spend more time here than you think. Just reading the instructions of how to operate the iron lung gave us shivers (they’re in English, on an affixed metal plate). It’s sobering, fascinating, and not to be missed.
Museo de Historia de la Medicina Guillermo Aguilar Maldonado
Corner of Avenida 12 de Abril and Avenida. Solano, just south of the river, near the Benigno Malo bridge
Open Monday through Friday from 8 am to 5 pm.