Comment | the MGH Museum

Comment,  in the form of critical reviews or editorials,  will from time to time here disrupt the stately flow,  if that’s what it is,  of my more scholarly work.  The purpose is to bring to bear a certain historical perspective on current events —  new books,  buildings and ideas of all sorts –especially those  likely to generate more heat than light.     — DS-T


I was not in a position to say no.  When architects of the stature of Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti,  Boston’s legendary firm of international star designers  (the Getty Museum in Los Angeles is their latest coup)  urge a project upon one,  this historian listens carefully.  And when a much admired president of Harvard,  Neil Rudenstine,  agrees to write the introduction,  the matter,  for me at least,  was settled.  Thus my “Harvard University: An Architectural Tour”,  published in  2001 by Princeton Architectural Press.

I thought of all this recently when I first saw the striking perspective of the proposed new MGH Museum on Cambridge Street,  where it would fill in so beautifully what I have often thought is an awkward patch.   One of the parts of the Harvard guide I found most rewarding to do the research for and to write were the sections on the campus of the Massachusetts General Hospital at the foot of Beacon Hill  (where the new museum is projected)   and the Longwood Medical Area in the Fenway.   It was ny first opportunity to explore in some detail Boston’s medical history.  Interesting to me in the first place because Boston/New England studies is my field,  there is also the fact that my father, John Hugh Tucci,  did his internship and residency as a physician at the Mass General and went on to become the first chief of anethesia at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmiry.

 Furthermore, to carry full disclosure to perhaps absurd limits,  I must admit the Bulfinch Building at the MGH is my favorite Boston building, bar none.

That landmark takes its place with the Massachusetts State House as the masterpiece of Boston’s first iconic architect,  Charles Bulfinch,  and I have been known to choose the White Building cafeteria for lunch more than once because of its view of this magnificent essay in the Boston granite style.

Now as befits what Harvard likes to call the most distinguished concentration  of  medical learning and practice in the world,  Boston already has a superb medical library and museum in the Countway Library adjoining Harvard Medical School.  It is also a celebrated work of architecture,  designed by Hugh Stubbins,  himself in his time a major global Boston designer,  best known perhaps for the Citicorp building in New York and Congress Hall in Berlin.  Countway,  however,  is so huge and august an experience —  rightly so in that it deals with the whole history of Boston medicine  —   that a smaller but distinguished museum focused on the unique history of MGH,  the city’s oldest and most famous hospital,  and somewhat more directed perhaps toward the lay public,  seems a very good idea indeed.

More negatively,  the Mass General has never spent the time or the money it should have on its own archives.  For years I have been trying,  for example,  to track down a bust given by my father to the hospital  of Oliver Wendell Holmes, but with no success whatever.   That purpose too the new MGH Museum would serve.

Dare I harp yet again on the Bulfinch Building,  to which in its interior court the new museum would point visitors, and  which I cannot imagine very many visitors to Boston  —  nor,  perhaps,  many residents  — find.  It is  notable for much more than its architecture.  It may be the most important building  in the history of American medicine,  for in its venerable ampitheatre —  a truly sacred place in the history of medicine worldwide  —  anesthesia was first used to allay human pain.

The architects I am told by a friend,  though they are not identified in the newspaper accounts,  are Leers,  Weinzapfel, of whose work in general I will confess I am a great admirer.

Finally,  it is worth saying in a city whose medical history is central to its global identity that,  properly presented,  this need not be a mystifying or opaque subject.  One of my dearest mentors as a young man in the 1970s was David McCord,  who wrote among many good Boston books a superb history of the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital,  “The Fabric of Man”.  David was no physician either.  He was a highly regarded poet.

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