Brushes With Death: Examining the Human Condition

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Kathleen Gallo's Solo Exhibition


International Museum of Surgical Science

1524 N Lake Shore Drive, Chicago | 312.642.6502 |


August 1st- October 31, 2021

Brushes with Death: Examining the Human Condition is a solo exhibition by artist Kathleen Gallo in collaboration with the International Museum of Surgical Science collection. This fascinating exhibition intertwines interactive installations, social commentary, fine art, medical/anatomical illustration, and forensic art into one show that examines what it means to be human. In this personal body of work, Gallo leads an expedition into her own mental and emotional capacity around the cyclical nature of destruction and birth. From highly rendered oil paintings to post-mortem facial reconstructions of the skulls in the IMSS collection, Gallo shares her passion for science, anthropology, and the arts. 


With her technical and artistic abilities, Gallo records osteological/archeological artifacts as well as recreate faces from the past. A post-mortem facial reconstruction is the artistic approximation of the facial characteristics of an unidentified deceased person based upon the person’s unique skull structure. This visual process can be done digitally, drawn by hand, or sculpted with clay. These flesh reconstructions can be used for museum displays, education, and identification purposes. In this context, Gallo has created hand-drafted 2-dimensional reconstructions on skulls from the IMSS collection located on the 4th floor of the museum. The collection of the museum provided a fascinating body of work investigating ancient cultural practices such as trephination and cradle-boarding, as well as creating faces for members of a pre-colonized civilization.


Alongside examining death in an anthropological or forensic nature, Gallo also finds inspiration through her journey with confronting mortality. From studying women's reproductive health to articulating her struggle with mental illness, and sharing her journey as a caretaker to her grandmother with stage 4 cancer Gallo draws conceptual inspiration from all periods of life as well as death. This show illustrates her duality as an artist, showing both her anatomical/forensic aspirations alongside her more personal and intimate fine art.


By examining death every day, Kathleen Gallo has managed to find success in her body of work and to exercise her passion for history and justice. Gallo pushes herself to explore her emotional capacity, giving herself over to the fascination with things long past and examining humanity’s relationship with life to capture its qualities and its gravity. Gallo hopes that her artwork may continue to give faces to the individuals who have had their dignity and identities stripped from them, as well as open a dialogue surrounding the subject matter of human morality and mortality.

The International Museum of Surgical Science

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The Collection


     Medical artifacts, apparatus and instruments comprise the bulk of the material in the Museum’s collections. Over 7,000 medical artifacts spanning centuries of worldwide medical history, from acupuncture to X-ray therapy, are represented in the collections.

     Among the exceptional artifacts are an Austrian amputation saw with reversible blade (c. 1500); original X-rays taken by radiology pioneer Emil Grubbé (c. 1910); the Lindbergh perfusion pump, which enabled doctors to keep organs functioning outside the body, invented by the renowned aviator Charles Lindbergh and Nobel Prize-winning surgeon Alexis Carrel (1935); and a unique collection of trephined skulls from ancient Peru.

     Fine art is featured in the collections through over 600 paintings, prints and sculptures, primarily portraits of individuals and historical depictions of specific procedures or events. Highlights include a portrait of Dr. Edward Jenner by John Russell (1790), and a plaster cast made from the death mask of Napoleon (1821). Significant artworks were commissioned by the Museum for the collection in 1950-53 including the Hall of Immortals and Hall of Murals.  The Italian painter Gregorio Calvi di Bergolo (1904-1994) was commissioned in 1953 to paint 12 mural panels in oils for this room to illustrate the development of surgery throughout the ages. The Museum’s Hall of Immortal statues are attributed to sculptors Louis Linck and Édouard Chassaing.

The Mansion


     The historic lakeside mansion that is now the International Museum of Surgical Science was constructed in 1917, under the careful direction of Eleanor Robinson Countiss (for which it is named) to house her family. Her father, JK Robinson, an executive of the Diamond Match Company, generously provided the home building fund.

     The elegant structure was designed to follow the historic lines of Le Petit Trianon, a French chateau on the grounds of Versailles completed in 1770 by architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel, and remembered as the playhouse of Marie Antoinette. The architect Howard Van Doren Shaw was hired to design the Countiss House with modifications including a fourth floor and a carriage drive.

Original interior finishes of polished limestone, Italian marble, decorative plaster, brass fixtures and hardware, eight stone fireplaces, and a gilded metal staircase are among the features which have been preserved.

     The Countiss family was the sole owner of the building until it was acquired by Dr. Max Thorek and the International College of Surgeons. After several years of renovating the building and forming the Museum collection, the Museum opened its doors to the public in 1954 .

     One of the few remaining lakefront mansions in Chicago, and the only one open to the public, the building received historic status in 1988, and is listed in the National Register and the Illinois Register of Historic Places and is a City of Chicago Landmark.

     The Eleanor Robinson Countiss House is designated one of the “Seven Houses on Lakeshore Drive,” a grouping of seven historically significant Chicago mansions on the lakefront.


The History

     Dr. Max Thorek founded the International College of Surgeons (ICS) in 1935, with the goals of promoting the exchange of surgical knowledge worldwide. The Museum was originally conceived as the ICS Hall of Fame, and as a repository for its growing collection of historically significant surgical instrumentation, artworks and manuscripts. 

     Beginning in 1950, through the efforts of Dr. Thorek, the Museum received additional donations of objects and artwork from many of the national sections of the ICS, individual surgeons and collectors, and other institutions. To house the Museum, a historic lakeside mansion was acquired, adjacent to the ICS headquarters.

     The Museum opened to the public on September 9, 1954. One of the first exhibits to be installed was the Hall of Immortals, containing twelve large stone statues of great figures in the field of medicine and the allied sciences. In further reference to great scientists, surgeons and discoveries of the past, a Hall of Murals was created with a series of large paintings depicting the development of surgical science through the ages.

     In 1959, the Museum marked the dedication of galleries devoted to France, Mexico, Spain and the Netherlands, with many more of these national rooms inaugurated over the ensuing years. Each room, hallway, and stair landing were devoted to one nation or region’s historical collection with the intention of tracing a particular nation’s contribution to surgery.

Beginning in 1990, new exhibits were developed based on historical themes and surgical disciplines.

     Over the past two decades, the International Museum of Surgical Science has made significant progress in strengthening its educational programs and exhibits, as well as in the conservation of its noteworthy collections and historic landmark building. Today, the Museum’s four floors are filled with extraordinary artifacts that interpret the prehistoric through contemporary healing practices. 

IMSS Exhibition
IMSS Exhibition

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IMSS Exhibition
IMSS Exhibition

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IMSS Exhibition
IMSS Exhibition

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IMSS Exhibition
IMSS Exhibition

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