A parade through both the intriguing and the bizarre, the curious and stomach-churning, our visit to the Musée Fragonard de l’Ecole Nationale Vétérinaire d’Alfort was truly a mind-bending experience. Our guide, a veterinary student himself, lead us through the so-called “cabinets of curiosities,” a rather popular display to possess among Parisian elite in the past. These cabinets including both non-human animal and human anatomies. Some, such as stomachs, digestive tracts, and other organs, were simply replicas or molds that had been plastered and painted to show anatomical distinctions. In addition, there were several skeletal figures ranging from smaller animals, like cats, to larger animals, like giraffes and camels. One particular skeleton that stood out to me was that of a dog with “bone-on-bone” caused by a lung infection. The specific mechanistic cause was unknown but seeing how thick the dogs’ legs had become with the layers upon layers of bone was incredibly intriguing. One new thing we learned how vastly veterinary science has changed in expanded in a mere century alone. Our guide mentioned how in the past doctors would merely apply human medical science to animals, but since animals have such differing systems from humans, the veterinary school was founded, initially in the center of Paris, then later moved to the city outskirts, in order to further explore how to treat animals specifically.
In addition, some displays contained formaldehyde jars with actual body parts, including tissue, genitals, stomachs, craniums, and more kept intact via various preservation methods. At this point, I noticed that myself in particular, as well as a few of my fellow students had to step outside for air or sit down because we started feeling rather queasy. After returning home and still not feeling well, one of my roommates mentioned how the odor of formaldehyde can make some people feel ill, even long after leaving the presence of the chemical. This led me to an article describing the psychophysical relationship between formaldehyde odor and irritation response in healthy non-smokers (Kulle, 2008). The study conducted utilized a 19 subject sample that were exposed to various concentration of formaldehyde (HCHO) over a 3-day period and asked each subject to report their subjective symptoms. The researchers found that the threshold of HCHO of just 0.5 ppm of exposure could cause an odor sensation that may make some feel sick and increasing exposure could cause eye irritation or even nose/throat irritation.
Knowing this, it’s curious to consider how the formaldehyde potentially affected only some of us in the museum, while others remained completely unfazed and continued to the end of the exhibition without any problem.
Kulle, T. J. (1993). Acute odor and irritation response in healthy nonsmokers with formaldehyde exposure. Inhalation Toxicology, 5(3), 323–332. https://doi.org/10.3109/08958379308998389