18th Century Surgery in a 20th Century Museum

A black and white photograph of the Spanish Military Hospital in 1967 seen from Aviles Street. Two people are walking away from the camera on the sidewalk next to the hospital.
Spanish Military Hospital, 1967

The Spanish Military Hospital was reconstructed by the St. Augustine Historical Restoration and Preservation Commission on Aviles Street in 1966 to resemble a Spanish colonial hospital of the 1790s. The rooms are filled with medicine jars, medical instruments, patient beds, drying medicinal herbs, and other artifacts that bring the space to life. But it’s just a museum. No real surgeries were ever performed there…right?

Allow me to tell you the tale of the world’s first ever full scalp transplant that happened right here in St. Augustine, complete with all the details that give Dr. Frankenstein a run for his money.

In 1969 the Spanish Military Hospital acquired 14 mannequins to add to the exhibits to bring them to life (so to speak): nine patients, a doctor, a ward attendant, a pharmacist, a corpse, and a mourner. Period clothing for all 14 mannequins was sewn by Margorie Adelsperger and Ruth Calkin. Unfortunately, 1960s mannequins made bad 18th-century Spanish hospital occupants for three glaring reasons. First, adult sized mannequins in 1966 were all 6 feet tall and would not fit in hospital beds with period appropriate dimensions (5 feet, 7 inches long). Second, they were all VERY white. Blond hair, blue eyes, the works. And third, they were smiling, which was particularly unsettling for the corpse. The challenge for curator Dr. Carleton Calkin was turning these tall, white mannequins into Spanish colonial hospital patients.

Dr. Carleton Calkin tending to a patient

To address the height, the adult sized mannequins were ditched in favor of the more appropriately sized 16 year old boy mannequins. The complexions and expressions were corrected with the help of spray paint, colored pencils, and putty (for wrinkles). To address those blond locks, Calkin had to take things a step further. The blond hair on the mannequins was so thick (“luxurious”, as they say in the industry) that darker colored wigs wouldn’t fit over the top of them. Calkin’s solution was to completely remove the mannequins’ scalps, then secure the wigs over their now bare heads.

A black and white photograph of two male mannequins. One is a patient on a cot underneath a blanket and the other is a doctor.
Doctor with patient in a period appropriate sized bed

While it might not qualify as a true scalp transplant by today’s standards, this was the first and only surgery the patients were subject to. For good measure, I’ll add that this was the only medical procedure Dr. Calkin ever officially performed – he had a PhD in art history and archaeology, but no MD. So after groundbreaking surgery by an unlicensed doctor, the new inhabitants were ready to show visitors what life was like in a colonial era Spanish Military Hospital.  

A black and white photograph of two mannequins. A seated female mannequin is dressed in colonial Spanish mourning clothes with a rosary. The other is a male colonial soldier representing a corpse in a bed.
Mourner and corpse mannequins

2 thoughts on “18th Century Surgery in a 20th Century Museum

  1. Pingback: Where's the Church? – Governor's House Library

  2. Pingback: Property Spotlight: Wakeman House – Governor's House Library

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