Indulge Your Macabre Curiosity at the Narrenturm’s Sensational Medical Museum

The world’s first psychiatric clinic lives on as the pathological-anatomical museum.

Hidden away in a corner of the Altes AKH (Vienna’s former general hospital), the Narrenturm (Tower of Fools) is a striking five-storied cylindrical building, affectionately nicknamed Gugelhupf by locals due to its characteristic form resembling the traditional cake. But stranger still is its history and contents. Commissioned by Emperor Joseph II and constructed in 1784, it was the world’s first psychiatric clinic, marking a turning point in societal attitudes towards the mentally ill: previously, psychiatric disorders were seen as a form of divine punishment (or more alarmingly, infernal possession). State of the art at the time, the Narrenturm was circular so the deranged could never get lost; its windows fitted with metal bars to ensure optimal air circulation all year round in accordance with the theory of humors – it was believed that lunacy was caused by an imbalance of yellow bile, one of the four bodily fluids thought to affect human health. While quickly overtaken by more modern facilities, it continued to function as a hospital until 1866, when it was converted into a storage facility and residence for nurses and doctors; the last one moved out as recently as 1993. Now a museum, today it is a place of stories filled with the wonder of discovery and the tragedy of those who could not be saved.

© The Narrenturm Vienna

Macabre Menagerie

No longer serving any medical purpose, the Narrenturm has been home to the Federal Pathological-Anatomical collection since 1971. And what a collection it is: Filled to the brim with all manner of unusual specimens and wax facsimiles, these former teaching aids are only viewable via guided tour due to the sheer volume of delicate, at times obscure items – which would doubtlessly reduce the exhibits to incomprehensible curios without an initiate providing background. Even so, it may leave you feeling rather queasy – there are only so many graphic depictions of bodily ailments one can stomach before being overwhelmed by it all.

© The Narrenturm Vienna

But it is by no means relentlessly grim: Walking through the circular halls, your 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,” it was once used to assist female patients in pointing out and describing their ills without compromising their modesty. On a shelf in a room full of skulls, visitors are regaled with the tale of an unsung pioneer who – lacking the tools and finesse to neatly pry apart a skull –ingeniously filled the cranium with dried chickpeas and then soaked it in water; the resulting expansion caused the skull to neatly split apart at the seams. Even in extreme cases, attempts were made to treat patients with comparative respect: There’s an entire preserved body of a young girl who succumbed to a severe case of ichthyosis (which turns the skin dry and scaly like a fish) – but touchingly, her face is cleared of all blemishes – to ensure she’ll be recognized as human in the event of an afterlife.

There are also a number of bizarre forays into the animal kingdom, boasting items like a taxidermied nine-legged kitten and the skull of a two-headed piglet.

Far from sensationalist sideshow though, these archaic tools and physical anomalies bear witness to how the ethical and scientific foundations of modern medicine took shape, providing a compelling overview of progress through the ages. It is both fascinating and unsettling in equal measure – and in a considerate nod to delicate dispositions, the exit is marked by a discreetly placed jug of water and a bowl of glucose tablets.

Uni Campus, 9., Spitalgasse 2

Tours: €6 , Wed 10:00, 11:00, 12:00, 15:00, 16:00 & 17:00;
Sat 10:00, 11:00 & 12:00. Tours in English can be arranged on request. (01) 521 77-606


David Mathews
David Mathews is an illustrator and animator from Delhi, based in Vienna. (David's Website)

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