Pathological-anatomical collection in the Narrenturm

The so-called Narrenturm is an important monument to the history of health care and medicine in the late 18th century. It was founded in 1784 for the care of mentally ill people. The building is a listed monument and is now owned by the University of Vienna. In 1971, the Federal Pathological-Anatomical Museum was housed here, which was incorporated into the Natural History Museum Vienna in 2012 as the pathological-anatomical collection in the Narrenturm. The building was completely renovated and reopened in 2020 with a new display of the collection.

Address: Spitalgasse 2, 1090 Wien

Opening hours:
Wednesday: 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.
Thursday & Friday: 10 a.m. - 3 p.m.
Saturday: 12 a.m. - 6 p.m.

except holidays

Saturday, December 24, 2022: closed!
Saturday, December 31, 2022: closed!

Ticket offers:
Regular ticket: 8,00 €
Reduced ticket: 6,00 €
Ticket combination with NHM Vienna: 22,00 €
Children and teenagers (until 19 years) & owners of "Kulturpass": free

Guided tour: 4,00 €

The showcollection can be visited independently. Barrier-free access.
Please note that photography and filming are not permitted in the show- and studycollection!


The pathological-anatomical collection of NMH Vienna in the Narrenturm ("Fools' Tower")

The only one of its kind in the world, the pathological-anatomical collection in Vienna has served purposes of documentation and research on diseases for more than 200 years. 19 modern showrooms on the ground floor of the renovated “Narrenturm” (Fools’ Tower) provide insights into pathology and the history of diseases. In the course of the renovation of the listed building, the permanent exhibition has been systematically reorganised in accordance with the criteria of pathology for the first time. The objective is to convey the collection’s content not only to doctors, medical students and nurses, but also to schoolchildren and an interested lay public.

The treatment of the topic is adapted to the structure of the spaces in the Fools’ Tower and its old cells, making a visit to the museum a unique experience. In addition to presenting aspects of the history of the Fools’ Tower and of pathology, the exhibition also addresses modern-day diseases.

The showrooms – designed by Viennese architect Martin Kohlbauer – provide a modern setting for the depiction of sensitive issues such as disease and death. The content design was developed in cooperation with medical specialists and implemented with the staff of NHM Vienna. The presentation was planned in consideration of contemporary international guidelines for the treatment of human remains and deliberately refrains from shocking sensationalism.

The first five rooms show the history of the collection and of pathology as such, all the way to modern molecular pathology in the 21st century. An old first-aid kit from the 16th century, as well as artefacts and original textbooks from the 18th century illustrate this history. The modern disciplines of pathology are also presented at an interactive station, with a focus on pathological histology.

Aspects of general pathology are depicted in six further rooms. Numerous anatomical specimens from the collection serve to visualise multi-organ afflictions such as inflammations, infections (tuberculosis in particular) and tumours, as well as exogenous and endogenous causes of diseases. Aspects of special pathology and organ pathology are presented in the following seven rooms. The diseases of the various organ systems are visualised using wet specimens and moulages. Life-sized murals explain basic anatomical concepts and interactions. Visitors can also take a peek into their own bodies by using an augmented reality station.
The history of the Fools’ Tower is shown in the next rooms, where two interactive stations also give an impression of the site from before the tower was built, as well as its historical uses. Next to an art installation from the 1990s and a historical forge, three rooms are used for special exhibitions that change periodically. A special new feature of this section is the museum shop, where visitors can find unusual mementos of their visit to the Fools’ Tower. This part of the building can also be rented separately for events.

The aim of the exhibition is to inform interested visitors about diseases, their symptoms and causes, forms and treatment methods. The setting of one of the world’s largest collections of pathological anatomy in the unique atmosphere of the Fools’ Tower makes a visit to the exhibition a memorable experience.

Exhibition design:
Project lead: Dr. Karin Wiltschke‐Schrotta
Scientific design: Univ. Prof. DDr. Walter Feigl, Eduard Winter
Development and implementation: Dr. Karin Wiltschke‐Schrotta, Eduard Winter, Dr. Verena Hofecker, Mag. Anatole Patzak, Roman Haselbacher, Hannes Steinzer, Charlotte Fuchs‐Robetin, Susanne Jurkovics, Judith Steinkellner, Mag. Andrea Stadlmayr, Mag. Maria Marschler, Bernhard Weinzinger, Bettina Voglsinger, Wolfgang Reichmann, Walter Hamp, Dr. Peter Sziemer, Mag. Gertrude Zulka‐Schaller, Elina Eder, Theresa Stadelmann, Fritz und Leopold
Österreicher, Medizinstudent*innen
Exhibition architecture: Mag. arch. Martin Kohlbauer, DI Laura Posadinu
Graphic design:: Rosemarie Hochreiter, NHM
Illustrations: Rajeev Doshi, Ph.D., Medi‐Mation, Kenhub Grafiken
Exhibition construction: Fa. museom, Team NHM, Fa. Schumacher
Media technology: Reinhard Sainitzer, Fa. Humai
Scientific consultants: Univ. Prof. Dr. Renate Kain Ph.D., Univ. Prof. Dr. Walter Gebhart, Univ. Prof. Dr. Josef Auböck, Ao. Univ. Prof. DDr. Susanne Kircher MBA, Univ. Prof. Dr. Johannes Hainfellner, Dr. Wolfgang Pokieser, Dr. Christian Franke, Dr. Felicitas Oberndorfer, Dr. Andrea Beer
With thanks to: the government agencies responsible since 2012, the Austrian Society for Clinical Pathology and Molecular Pathology, the Austrian Society of Dermatology and Venereology, the Medical University of Vienna, the Archives of the University of Vienna, the Austrian National Library, Novetus Archaeological Services, Crazy Eye and Brenda Baker, Ph.D.
History of the site

In late Roman imperial times (3rd century CE), the site where the Fools’ Tower stands today was outside a legionnaires’ camp on the limes road. In the course of renovation work on the Fools’ Tower, archaeological excavations brought to light a cremation grave with burial gifts from that period.

As early as the Middle Ages, the present-day ninth municipal district of Vienna along the Als stream served as a site for hospitals, which were established outside Vienna’s city walls. In the area referred to as “Siechenals” (Invalids’ Als), a military hospital operated from 1298 onwards, and was later converted into a quarantine station for plague sufferers.

Across from it, on what is now Währinger Strasse road, a hospital for the poor called “Bäckenhäusl” opened in 1656, and on Boltzmanngasse road, the Imperial-Royal National Military Hospital and the Spanish Hospital were built in 1754.

In the immediate neighbourhood stood the Home for the Poor and Invalids, opened in 1693, which was converted into the General Hospital of Vienna in 1784. The other hospitals in the vicinity were closed.

The General Hospital compound was in use as a hospital until 1993 and was then adapted as a campus by the University of Vienna.

Der Narrenturm

The “Imperial-Royal Insane Asylum of Vienna” in the newly built Fools’ Tower was opened on 19 April 1784 as the first institution in Europe intended exclusively for the treatment of mentally ill patients. Architect Josef Gerl designed the building according to the wishes of Emperor Joseph II, who financed the Fools’ Tower from his personal funds. The building is therefore considered not only a monument to classicism in Austria, but also a testament to Josephist Enlightenment.

The round building was unique among psychiatric institutions. The five-storey tower holds 28 cells per storey, connected by a central corridor. Its original construction also featured a wooden octagonal roof structure towering over the building, which Joseph II regularly visited.

As early as the 1820s, there were plans to close the Fools’ Tower, as the building was not suited to operation as a hospital. After alterations made in 1857, it continued to be in use as a psychiatric institution until 1866. The patients were then transferred to other institutions in the area and in the town of Ybbs.

After 1870, the Fools’ Tower housed utility rooms of the General Hospital. From 1900 onwards, it served as lodgings for medical and nursing staff, students and employees of the General Hospital.

From 1971 onwards, it housed the Federal Pathological-Anatomical Museum, which was incorporated into the Natural History Museum Vienna as its pathological-anatomical collection as of 1 January 2012.

The building as such is protected as a historical monument and is now owned by the University of Vienna.
In the course of renovations in 2012, numerous building alterations and additions were removed, so that the tower’s appearance now reflects its original design.
1796: Inception of the collection

The idea of a collection of anatomical specimens was first suggested by Pasqual Joseph Ferro (1753–1809), medical advisor and first municipal medical officer.

The physician Johann Peter Frank (1745–1821), director of the General Hospital, ultimately founded the pathological-anatomical museum in the new Institute of Pathology in 1796. He appointed the physician Aloys Rudolph Vetter (1765–1806) as unpaid prosector and conservator of the pathological collection. When Frank and Vetter left Vienna in 1804, there was disagreement about the medical discipline to which the museum should belong.

In 1812, comprehensive regulations for health services entered into force under the auspices of the emperor’s personal physician, Andreas Joseph von Stifft (1760–1836). They regulated precisely how to deal with corpses at Vienna General Hospital, and how to acquire anatomical specimens.
It was decreed that “the corpses of persons who have died of strange diseases in the hospital, including the lying-in hospital and the insane asylum, shall be dissected by the pathology prosector in the presence of the physicians. The findings shall be recorded, and the specimens collected for the museum of pathology, complete with medical records.”

1812–1829: Lorenz Biermayer
Lorenz Biermayer (1778–1843) became the pathology prosector at the newly founded Institute of Pathological Anatomy in 1812; he carried out the pathological dissections and administered the museum. In 1813, he started the museum catalogue, which is maintained to this day. In 1817, Biermayer initiated systematic records of autopsy reports, which have continued uninterrupted to the present day; he also expanded the collection to almost 4,000 specimens. Dismissed for dereliction of duty in 1829, he was succeeded as director of the museum and prosector by his assistant Johann Wagner (1800–1832) until the latter’s untimely death of tuberculosis.

1834–1874: Carl von Rokitansky
Carl von Rokitansky (1804–1878) worked at the Institute of Pathological Anatomy from 1827 onwards, as an unpaid intern at first, and from 1832 as its director. Because of the poor condition of numerous specimens due to unsuitable conservation in alcohol, Rokitansky had to reduce the collection to 1,375 specimens. While serving as chair and professor of pathology, he expanded the museum’s collection to 4,833 specimens and created a new catalogue.
Rokitansky made deliberate additions to the collection, which was essential for teaching and research. Nearly all the specimens he discussed in his scientific papers have been preserved in the collection to this day.
Under his direction, the new building of the Institute of Pathology was opened in 1862, including large, light-filled rooms for the museum.

Rokitansky’s successors
Carl von Rokitansky’s student Richard Heschl (1824–1881) became his successor in 1875. He expanded the museum by numerous bone specimens, especially skulls. Johann Kundrat (1845-1893), who had likewise studied under Rokitansky, brought parts of the specimen collection from Graz when he became chair and professor at the Vienna institute. Malformations of the brain were his speciality; he was the first to describe porencephaly (a rare, genetic or acquired defect of brain tissue characterised by cyst formation) and arhinencephaly (absence of the olfactory bulbs and tracts) in 1882.

His successor Anton Weichselbaum (1845–1920) already focused on pathological histology and bacteriology in his work. He described micro-organisms such as the eponymous Diplococcus intracellularis meningitidis Weichselbaum, the cause of meningitis.

Rudolf Maresch (1868–1936) became chair of pathology in 1924; he reorganised the museum and opened it to medically interested visitors. In 1929, Maresch introduced the systematic organisation of the specimens according to the principles of general and special pathology. Histology reports were also prepared for many of the specimens.

Relocation to the Fools’ Tower in 1971
Serving as chair from 1936 onwards, Hermann Chiari (1897-1969) expanded the museum’s collection to 14,000 specimens. During the Second World War, the collection was safely stored in the cellar. From 1946 onwards, the dedicated curator Karl Portele (1912–1993) added to the catalogue and reorganised the collection. He also used new methods of preparation.

Due to lack of space, the entire collection had to be relocated to 14 cells in the Fools’ Tower in the course of a week in 1971. In 1974, the collection was split off from the General Hospital, and Karl Portele became director of the new Federal Pathological-Anatomical Museum.
From then on, the pathological-anatomical collection was no longer connected to the Institute of Pathological Anatomy.

Its status as a federal museum facilitated the incorporation of teaching collections from Viennese hospitals, as well as national and international collections. The museum’s holdings grew to nearly 50,000 objects, including historical medical instruments.
Today, the pathological-anatomical collection is considered the world’s largest collection of pathological specimens.

The collection today
Prepared specimen collections continue to be important aids in the teaching of medicine. Their educational value lies in the wide variety of diseases documented, including numerous forms of diseases that no longer occur locally today. Part of the collection has also been made accessible to the public.

Karl Portele’s successor, physician Beatrix Patzak (who served as director from 1993–2013), made the collection in the Fools’ Tower accessible with a modern tour and event programme. The collection’s scientific value is reflected in numerous research projects. Due to technological progress in diagnostics and genetics, the historical specimens have also gained in importance for current research.

In 2012, the federal museum was incorporated into the Natural History Museum Vienna. This was contingent on a contractual duty to fully renovate the building.

The architect responsible for renovation works on the entire building was Thomas Kratschmer. The conversion of the ground floor for the new public collection was carried out in cooperation with architect Martin Kohlbauer, who also developed the interior design of the redesigned showrooms.