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History doesn’t make itself. Skulls, scalpels and amputations are just another day at the office for the team behind the International Museum of Surgical Science, a small museum keeping its corner of history alive. Here’s their story — in their own words:

Michelle Rinard, Manager of Education

This museum is really special, since it’s such a specialized field, all about medical history. It started in 1954, so we have a really long history in this location in Chicago.

We’re a really small staff but we all work very collaboratively together, and if the toilet backs up, we have to do that too.

Paintings commissioned by the International Museum of Surgical Sciences depict early surgical techniques throughout the museum.

As people are walking through the museum, they might be surprised to see some more gory aspects of surgeries.  It’s something that people are really interested in. People sort of enjoy the kind of macabre feel of surgical and medical history. It could be perceived as creepy. There’s a lot of lot of outdated tools that are no longer used.

We do an amputation demonstration with students. It teaches students what surgery was like 200 years ago. Back then, doctors and surgeons didn’t have widespread use of anesthesia. They also didn’t have widespread use of antisepsis so there wasn’t common knowledge of germ theory. So surgeries back then were much more dangerous than they are today.

Students demonstrate Civil War – era amputation techniques, which were done without anesthesia or antiseptic measures.

Monica Stokes, Exhibit and Development Manager

This museum itself was started as a Hall of Fame, which means it was more specific for surgeons. A lot of people in Chicago are surprised to hear that we exist, even in our local community. But I think the specificness of small museums is what makes them so relevant.

In the International Museum of Surgical Science’s permanent collection… we have a number of cases that house smaller instruments. So we have a number of speculums. Some of my favorites are heart valves from the ’60s. Early artificial heart valves are used when valves aren’t able to do their job any longer, so the artificial valve does the job of letting blood flow through but restricting blood from going back through the valve.

We also have later iterations of treppaning instruments. These are used for boring a hole in the skull. It’s actually the first documented form of surgery. It dates back- in our collection we have Peruvian treppanation instruments that are about 2,000 B.C.

It’s used today in really extreme cases of relieving pressure in the head, but back then it could have ranged from pressure in the head to relieving evil spirts to insanity, migraines.

Ancient Peruvian skulls dating back to 2,000 B.C. show evidence of trepanation, or boring into the skull, which is the first documented form of surgery. Some show signs of multiple surgeries.

Michelle Rinard, Manager of Education

Medicine has a really long history and some of it is more gruesome, so there’s a bumpy road of medical history. We’ve come a long way.

It’s important to tell those histories, so people when they think about the medical treatment that they’re getting today, they know that we’re far more advanced than where we were, but you can tell by going through these exhibits that there probably is a lot further we can even go.

Note: These interviews were edited for content