College’s ancient Irish deer antlers have a storied history

Prominently displayed in the 26th floor reception area of the America College of Surgeons’ (ACS) headquarters building in Chicago, IL, is a remarkable item that symbolizes international unity, professional admiration, and fraternity among surgeons on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean—the 9,000 year-old skull and antlers of Megaloceros giganteus, the largest deer species that ever lived.

Sir William Taylor of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) proposed the gift of this stunning artifact of natural history to the ACS in 1921 as a symbol of friendship between the two Colleges, and it reflects the RCSI’s high esteem for history and its Fellows’ pride in their nation’s heritage.

Antlers

The antlers in their display case at the College headquarters in Chicago.

Artifact’s origins

According to letters held in the RCSI’s archives, the deer skull and antlers were first excavated from a bog in County Leitrim in 1832 and purchased by the RCSI for the sum of 50 pounds sterling by Prof. John Hart, MD, curator of the RCSI museum from 1844 to 1846.

In 1919, shortly after the ACS moved into the Italianate limestone mansion at 40 E. Erie Street, known as the Nickerson Mansion, the RCSI proposed the gift to their colleagues in America. This offer was made in part because the mansion already housed numerous animal heads left by one of the previous owners.

Originally built for banking baron Samuel Mayo Nickerson and his family in 1883, the house was sold to Lucius George Fisher, president of Union Bag & Paper Co., upon Mr. Nickerson’s retirement in 1900. One of Mr. Fisher’s great passions was big game hunting; he converted one of the upstairs parlors into a trophy room and rare book library. Mr. Fisher lived in the mansion until his death in 1916.

The house was purchased three years later by prominent Chicago businessmen, including Cyrus H. McCormick II, William Wrigley Jr., and Julius Rosenwald, and donated to the ACS for use as its headquarters in 1919. When the College took over the property, a large number of mounted animal heads remained in the building’s trophy room, and this collection prompted the RCSI to send the Irish deer skull and antlers as a token of friendship to the ACS. In Ireland, hanging deer skulls and antlers in a home symbolizes a rootedness to the land and a strong sense of community.

Irish Elk

Irish Elk

Displaying the artifact

The deer skull and antlers proudly hung on a wall of the ACS headquarters until the ACS staff outgrew the building. Most staff relocated to 55 E. Erie Street, and then, in 1998, to the current headquarters building at 633 N. Saint Clair Street. Although the skull and antlers remained a treasured gift, after the move, their size and frailty made displaying them difficult.

In 2002, ACS Office Services Manager Daniel D. Steinke contacted Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, and with its assistance began the process of restoring the skull and antlers, which are more than 10 feet wide. Mr. Steinke built a vitrine to protect them from the elements and mounted the relic for proper display. In a nod to ACS history, the cortisone oak map table used to anchor the display is an original from the John B. Murphy Memorial Auditorium.

Starting this March at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Irish deer skull and antlers will be featured as part of a larger exhibit focusing on Irish art and culture. (For further details, refer to the December 2014 issue of the Bulletin.)

Curator Christopher Monkhouse has traveled the globe locating the objects for this exhibition, and the ACS is honored to have this unique piece of our history included and for the opportunity to partner with the Art Institute of Chicago on this important exhibition.

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Bulletin of the American College of Surgeons
633 N. Saint Clair St.
Chicago, IL 60611

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