NARRENTURM | Tower of Fools

Image © Gryffindor, Wikimedia Commons | The Narrenturm

Hidden away in a corner of the former site of Vienna’s General hospital, the Narrenturm (“Tower of Fools”) is a strange and singular piece of medical history. 

Commissioned by the Emperor Joseph II, and constructed in 1784 by Isidore Canevale, this striking five-storied cylindrical building began life as the world’s first psychiatric clinic. The architecture itself played a part in treating the patients – the windows in their rooms were fitted with metal bars instead of glass to allow for optimal circulation of air regardless of season, in accordance with the theory of humors, which suggested that mental illnesses were caused due to an excess of yellow bile (representing the element of fire), one of the four bodily fluids thought to be contained in humans. The opening of the Narrenturm marked the beginnings of a turning point in societal attitudes towards the mentally ill. Until this point in time, mental illness was seen as a form of divine punishment (or more alarmingly still, as a form of infernal possession), and it had been common practice to neglect and mistreat those who were thus afflicted by putting them on display, locking them away, or treating them as uncomprehending beasts. 

Despite being outstripped by developments in the field shortly after opening, it continued to function as a hospital until 1866, whereupon it was transformed into a storage facility and place of residence for nurses and doctors; the last resident doctor moved out as recently as 1993. No longer serving any active medical purpose, the Narrenturm has housed the collection of the Federal Pathologic-Anatomical Museum since 1971. And it is quite the collection: filled to the brim with all manner of anatomical specimens and wax preparations, viewing it can admittedly leave one feeling rather queasy, as there are only so many vividly rendered bodily ailments that the average person can stomach before being somewhat overwhelmed by it all. However, it provides a compelling overview of medical progress through the years by means of a guided tour. This is currently the only way for visitors to view the collection, presumably due to the sheer volume of delicate specimens on display, and without which a visit to the Narrenturm would no doubt rapidly devolve into touring a cabinet of macabre and incomprehensible curiosities.

But it is by no means relentlessly grim: Walking through the circular halls, a visitor’s gaze might come to rest on an elegantly reclining figurine of a woman little more than a hand’s length in size, known as a “doctor’s lady” and once used to assist female patients in locating and describing their ailments to a doctor without compromising their modesty. On another shelf in a room in a room full of skulls, visitors are regaled with the story of how some unsung pioneer – lacking the tools and finesse to neatly prise apart the plates of a skull – hit upon the ingenious idea of filling said cranium with dried chickpeas and soaking it in water; the resulting expansion of the chickpeas caused the skull to neatly split apart at the seams. In the case of a young girl who succumbed to a severe case of ichthyosis (a disorder where the skin turns dry and scaly), and whose entire body was preserved as a specimen, the person responsible for preserving her body movingly made a point of clearing her face of all blemishes, to ensure that she would be recognised as human in the event of an afterlife. The collection even includes a number of startling forays into the animal kingdom, boasting such items as the stuffed specimen of a nine-legged kitten and the skull of a two-headed piglet. And in a considerate little nod to those of a more delicate temperament, the end of the tour is marked by a discreetly placed jug of water and a bowl full of glucose tablets.

It is a place of stories filled with the wonder of discovery and the tragedy of those who could not be saved, and it is both fascinating and unsettling in equal measure to witness how the ethical and scientific foundations of modern medicine took shape.

A version of this article was published in the April 2017 edition of METROPOLE