In the Loop

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October 30, 2018

Wax Models Combine the Art and Science of Medicine

By In the Loop

In the early days of Mayo Clinic, before film and video were readily available, Mayo's art department created thousands of lifelike wax sculptures to use for medical education.


When Arthur Bulbulian, D.D.S., submitted his expense report, one item caught the attention of the Mayo Clinic business office. Dr. Bulbulian was staffing Mayo's exhibit at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. Why, the office wondered, did he need a supply of smelling salts? The answer, it seems, could be traced back to Mayo's Art Department. Staff there had created wax models for the exhibit depicting surgeries that were so realistic, some visitors fainted after viewing them.

Karen Koka can relate to their shock. Koka, an archivist at the W. Bruce Fye Center for the History of Medicine at Mayo Clinic, cares for Mayo's large collection of wax models, most of which were "retired" and put in storage close to 30 years ago. Koka tells us she's still surprised by how lifelike they are. "The models are very graphic and true to what you'd see in an exam room or operating room," she tells us. "They're an exceptionally visual way to show a condition or technique."

That's exactly why the models were so prized in the early days of Mayo Clinic. As the Mayo brothers became known for their surgical expertise, physicians from around the country were eager to learn from them. One way the brothers shared their work was by using wax models to teach progressive steps in a procedure.

"Will and Charlie Mayo really valued the artists showing their new techniques," Peter McConahey says. McConahey, a designer in Mayo's Brand Strategy and Creative Studio, was the last sculptor hired to create the models, which were also used in award-winning displays at major medical meetings across the United States. The artists traveled by rail with the fragile models and display cases (also created in-house), and once on site, repaired any damage caused by travel. "At one point Mayo had a full team working on medical sculptures," McConahey tells us. "Duties included making the molds, pouring wax, and painting the models."

By the 1980s, color film and video had become a more affordable and efficient way of delivering medical education, and Mayo stopped making models. While Koka tells us many institutions "just melted down their models," Mayo has preserved its collection. For years, many of the more than 2,000 sculptures were on display at the Mayo Medical Museum, a popular destination for area school groups as well as patients and visitors. (One visitor even diagnosed his wife with a rare thyroid condition after seeing symptoms depicted on a model.)

When the museum closed in 1988, most of the models were put into storage, though several can still be seen in the Barbara Woodward Lips Patient Education Center. The rest are stored in Mayo's Archives and cared for by Koka, who sometimes receives requests from physicians who want to use a sculpture as part of a presentation. More recently, the models are being brought out for special exhibits and events.

And while photos and videos have dominated the medical education landscape for years, 3D models are making a comeback. Instead of being carved out of wax, the modern versions are crafted on a computer and printed in plastic. "Now with 3D printing, you can create models that show a person's exact anatomy and help surgeons prepare for a procedure," McConahey says. (Seems everything old really is new again.)

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Tags: 3D printing, Barbara Woodward Lips Patient Education Center, Karen Koka, Medical Education Stories, Peter McConahey, W. Bruce Fye Center for the History of Medicine

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