It’s no secret that Boston is full of history. From Beacon Hill to Paul Revere to the Tea Party, the city of Boston is teeming with 18th and 19th century landmarks, and the tourists that come to visit. But there is plenty of other bizarre, weird, odd historical locales that the common visitor knows little about.
So, throw your tea in the river, don’t buy that three-cornered hat, and ignore the warning that the British are coming. Come discover the history of Boston that few know about.
Mass General Hospital
55 Fruit Street
Bulfinch Building, 4th Floor
Boston, MA 02114
Hours: Monday – Friday, 9AM to 5PM (closed for faculty meetings)
Surgery sucks, no matter how you slice it (see what I did there?) Now, imagine surgery without anesthesia. Prior to 1846, cutting, dicing, and digging into the human body was done either with the patient completely awake or completely dead.
That all changed on October 16th, 1846 when local dentist Dr. William T. Morton assisted John Collins Warren during surgery by administering ether to the patient. This was done in front of hundreds of their medical peers watching from the rafters in this medical amphitheater. When the patient was sufficiently knocked out, Dr. Warren, who would go on to become the first Dean of the Harvard Medical School, carefully removed a tumor from his neck. When the patient rose after being stitched back up, he reportedly said, “it feels like my neck has been scratched,” with the audience erupting into thunderous applause. This was the first public demonstration of surgical anesthesia.
Today, this nearly two hundred year old medical amphitheater at the still-active Massachusetts General Hospital is known simply as “the Ether Dome.” It’s plays host to the occasional faculty meeting, a real smiling mummy (his bright white teeth intact), outdated surgical equipment, and a grotesque, gory oil painting depicting this famed surgery.
105 Salem Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02113
Hours: Monday – Friday 10AM- 6:30PM, Saturday 9AM to 6PM, Closed on Sunday
Admission: Only What You Buy
Located in the North End of Boston, this coffee shop is not a just coffee shop. It’s a spice, seed, tea, powder, candy, and pretty much anything you can imagine shop. Opening for business in 1932, Polcari’s has been serving the neighborhood for 82 years. Frankly, some of the jars way in the back maybe that old as well.
Originally the dream of Italian immigrant Anthony Polcari, this shop was a family establishment and was handed down to his son, Ralph, when Anthony passed away. Ralph never had any kids, but he did become a mentor to one of his employees, Bobby Eustace. So, when Ralph was in poor health in 2005, he gave the store over to Bobby.
To this day, Bobby still runs it, saying he considers himself “a museum keeper.” So, prepare for your day of exploring Boston by grabbing a cup of Joe, and maybe some vanilla powder while you are at it, at this North End institution.
The Mary Baker Eddy Library
200 Massachusetts Ave.
Boston, MA 02115
Hours: Tuesday – Sunday, 10AM to 4PM, Tours run every 20 mins
The Mapparium isn’t your typical classroom spinning globe. Sitting three stories high and brightly lit, it looks more like a giant Christmas ornament than anything else. Built in 1935 for 35,000 dollars by Charles Lindsay Churchill, it was constructed to top New York Daily News‘ famous spinning globe. But what makes this giant globe so unique is that it is the only place on Earth you can see the entirety of the planet without distortion.
Visitors walk, via a glass bridge (which, according to Churchill, was the first of its kind when built), through the absolute middle of the globe, allowing a perspective that is unlike any you’ve ever had. You are literally looking out from the center of the Earth. From this vantage point, the sizes and placements of countries and continents are completely different than what you remember from school. North America, Europe, and Asia are all much further north. Africa is humongous. And Earth is, truly, mostly water.
What also will grab your attention is that this globe is unchanged from when it was built in 1935. As in, countries, borders, and geopolitical conditions that didn’t exist in 1935, don’t exist on this globe. There is no Israel or Indonesia. There is a Siam and a USSR.
Visiting the Mapparium will make you realize our planet is huge and a much different place than what they taught you in school with those dumb spinning globes.
10 Shattuck Street
Boston, MA 02115
Hours: Monday – Friday, 9AM to 5PM
Medical museums, while educational, informative, and interesting, are often quite bizarre and morbid. No truer is this than at the Warren Anatomical Museum, where skulls, skeletons, scary-looking scalpels are the norm. Are conjoined fetal skeletons your thing? Well, the Warren’s got a pair. Into the pseudoscience of phrenology? The Warren’s collection includes the instruments used by the phrenology pioneer Johann Gaspar Spurzheim. Want to know more about how the powerful drug ether was used as an anesthesia? The Warren has the actual ether inhaler used at that famed surgery at the “Ether Dome” only a few miles down the road in 1846.
By far the most popular, and odd, exhibit at the Warren is the one that tells the tale of Phineas Gage, the man who had a three foot eight inch tampering iron rod go through the front of his brain. He amazingly lived to tell the tale, but not without consequences. It seemed that within four months, at least on the outside, he was nearly all healed.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t. His personality and temperament greatly changed. Once a quiet, unassuming, nice man, he became loud, angry, and aggressive. This led researchers to realize the frontal lobe, where the rod had pierced, was what determined personality. Gage’s injury led to a breakthrough in neuroscience. When Gage passed, his skull, still with the giant hole, and the iron rod itself was donated to the Warren, where it sits today.
For more information on all of these unique locations, please visit Atlas Obscura, the online guidebook to the world’s most wondrous places!
Matt Blitz is the person you want to take on a road trip with you. He knows every obscure, odd, and downright awesome stop to make while traveling America. Based out of Los Angeles, he’s written for CNN, Atlas Obscura, Nickelodeon, The Smart Set, and Today I Found Out. He will also insist on stopping at every diner and waffle house on said road trip.