Transylvania University's curious collection dates back more than 200 years

Items used for teaching medical students from 1799 to 1859

LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY (WDKY)-- Kentucky has its fair share of museums that display art collections, historic documents, antique cares and sports memorabilia. Most of them are well advertised and draw lots of visitors.

But one of the most interesting museums is not well-known and gets very few visitors.The Monroe Moosnick Medical and Scientific Museum at Transylvania University is a freaky and fascinating place in the basement of the school's science building.

Dr. Jamie Day, a physics professor, has been its curator for 18 years."I've only had two people faint," Day said. It's easy to understand why visitors would feel queasy.

The museum has a table filled with infant skeletons and loose bones. Another table contains a rare "Medical Venus," a life-sized wax figure used to teach anatomy.

It was made in Italy in the early 1800s with the organs modeled from the cadavers of 200 women.

"It's hard to tell now, but when it arrived, the newspaper raved about how beautiful it was," Day said.The model was important because it kept medical students from robbing graves to study cadavers. It, and many of the other items in the museum, were damaged when the medical school burned in 1863.

Students and faculty rescued the items from the burning building. The Venus is now missing a layer of skin and its face is frozen in a permanent stare.

Transy had a medical school from 1799 to 1859. It closed when many faculty members moved to bigger schools in Louisville and Cincinnati as the country moved toward Civil War."Because most of our artifacts survived, we have a more comprehensive collection that just about any school in the country for the time period," Day said. "Harvard has a bigger one, but many people say Transy has the second best collection for teaching science from the early 1800s."

The Smithsonian Institution tried to buy the entire collection in the 1940s. Day is glad university leaders said "no."

Some of the tools in the collection could be considered quackery, such as a device for blowing smoke into the bowels of drowning victims as a way to try to revive them.

Other items are just strange, such as the 14-inch hairball that was cut from a cow's stomach in 1848, donated by Abraham Lincoln's brother-in-law."I believe it's the biggest hairball in the world," Day said. "I've done a lot of research and haven't found a bigger one."The hairball even has a Twitter account. (@immense hairball)

It's the bizarre items that brought heavy metal rocker Ozzy Osbourne and his son, Jack, to the museum last spring to shoot a segment for their reality show. But the museum is now only open by appointment and mostly to artists and researchers.

Day hopes someday the university will be able to build a state-of-the-art exhibit hall for the collection, where everything could be properly protected yet easily viewed. They just need some big donors to make that happen.

"I feel there's momentum in that direction, "Day said.

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