Time Out Sydney

It could not sound more gruesome: a room filled with 2,000 specimens of real, diseased human tissue.

Hearts and lungs, brains and kidneys are suspended in the formaldehyde that preserves them in rectangular glass cases. Somehow, looking at organs through glass gives you the distance you need to not be grossed out. Still, it is hard not to feel a bit overwhelmed by the scope of suffering on display the Museum of Human Disease, a permanent exhibition at the University of New South Wales.

Each specimen belonged to a person and therefore there is a story behind each one, some explained in the exhibition and others left unsaid. If you need motivation to quit smoking, consider the life of a 33-year-old man who puffed 20 cigarettes a day. He weighed 100 kilos and had a history of high blood pressure. Now the heart that had two heart attacks in two weeks, and finally stopped beating for good three weeks after that, is sliced in five to show the blood clot and dead muscle.

The message is clear - take care of yourself. Or else. Indeed, one of the reasons why this collection opened to the general public for the first time in March was to promote the importance of good health.

"For people who have a genuine interest in the body and their health, and want to try and understand it better, I think visiting the museum is a great opportunity to be able to reinforce some of those things that you hear about diet and exercise," says museum manager Robert Lansdown.

The Museum of Human Disease was created in the 1960s by UNSW Professor Donald Wilhelm to help medical students in their studies of the human body. Specimens were donated from hospitals after surgeries with the consent of individuals or their family members. Since patterns of disease have changed, the museum contains some rare specimens from illnesses that are no longer prevalent in Australia, such as diphtheria.

In the 1990s, the museum opened to school groups from outside the university, and some 8,500 students visit the museum each year. And, since this past March, anyone can visit. While pathology collections like this one are common at universities, "it's rare to have this sort of access," says Lansdown. "But the way in which the specimens were collected, preserved and used is completely ethical and very standard."

Reinforcing the point that the museum is educational and not sensational, visitors are required to sign a pledge to be respectful of the human specimens. A handheld audio tour guides visitors through the massive exhibit.

It is readily apparent what is wrong with certain specimens - the one-centimetre exit wound of a bullet that has cracked a skull is not hard to decipher. But as shocking as those body parts can be, it's the ones that require a closer look that can be the most interesting. You just don't expect to see teeth and hair growing in an ovary - but it's a type of tumour called a teratoma. Eek.

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Updated on 30 May 2012.

Museum of Human Disease details

Ground Floor, Samuels Building, University of New South Wales
College Rd, Randwick 2052

Telephone 02 9385 1522

Price Up to $50

Open Mon-Fri 3-5pm.

Museum of Human Disease website

Museum of Human Disease map

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