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The Mütter Museum

July 12, 2018

The Mütter Museum is regarded as the finest historic medical museum in America, exhibiting all things macabre, grotesque, and incredibly fascinating. The Museum displays beautifully preserved collections of anatomical specimens, medical models, and surgical instruments in a 19th-century “cabinet museum” setting. The Mütter Museum enlightens its visitors to the mysteries and oddities of the human body, helps them appreciate the history of medicine and treatment of disease, and allows them to explore numerous medical fields in a unique, interactive setting.

 

The Mütter Museum's namesake, Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter, was born in Richmond, Virginia, on March 9, 1811. He attended Hampden-Sydney College for his undergraduate studies and received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1831. After spending a year in Europe observing master surgeons, Mütter returned to the United States and joined the Jefferson Medical School faculty as a Professor of Surgery, concentrating in reconstructive and early plastics procedures. He maintained that position for fifteen years before resigning due to ill health. During his tenure at Jefferson Medical, Mütter gained profound notoriety and acclaim from his peers for his surgical skills and was considered one of the best surgeons in North America. He pioneered early versions of skin grafting, developed cleft palate surgical procedures, and was one of the first doctors in America to use ethyl ether as an anesthetic. On March 16, 1859, Mütter died in his Charleston, South Carolina, home from an undisclosed chronic lung ailment at the age of 48. 

 

While his life and medical career were cut short, Dr. Mütter's legacy continued to evolve. In his will, Mütter bequeathed $30,000 and his entire medical specimens collection (roughly 1700 anatomical and pathological items in total) to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. He instructed the College to build an institution dedicated to biomedical education and exhibition, fund lectures, and expand the collection with the money he had granted them. Abiding by his wishes, the College officially opened the Mütter Museum on the corner of 13th and Locust Streets in 1863. The museum was moved in 1909 to its present location on South 22nd Street. The Mütter Museum now displays nearly 26,000 medical, anatomical, and pathological relics, and attracts over 150,000 visitors each year.

 

I have always wanted to visit the Mütter Museum, ever since I read Gretchen Worden's book, Mütter Museum: Of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, as a sophomore in high school. It was one of the few books I actually enjoyed reading (granted, the book is mostly pictures, but that's besides the point...). The point is, the book captivated me, and peaked my interest in pursuing a career in the medical field. There was just something about seeing those anomalous specimens and peculiar displays that made me want to learn more. But seeing pictures and reading descriptions wasn't enough...I had to see this place for myself. And after six years of waiting and anticipation, I finally got my chance.

 

The first exhibit I saw in the museum, Woven Strands: The Art of Human Hair Work, displays intricate pieces of Victorian hair art, which are just as eccentric and bizarre as their medium sounds. The hair to make these pieces usually came from deceased loved ones (often children), though living individuals would sometimes donate their hair for the purpose of family record. Hair decays considerably slower than the rest of the body, which made it an incredibly personal, sentimental, and long-lasting keepsake for the family of the deceased. There are four types of hair art on display: 1) Gimp work--three-dimensional hair objects, like flower wreaths or landscapes; 2) Palette work--hair is cleaned, flattened and encased in glass; 3) Table work--braided hair designs; and 4) Dissolved hair, which is made into jewelry. 

 

Upon entering the main exhibits and making a left, I perused through the items in the Brothers Grimm display. This impressive collection contains specimens of real and extremely rare physiological disorders that inspired, or were inspired by, the characters of Grimm's tales. Rapunzel syndrome, also known as Trichobezoar, is the formation of a hairball in the intestinal system, the result of compulsive hair eating. The "Bezoar in a Bell Jar" shows interested visitors just exactly how big these things can get! Another hair condition, known as pilca polonica--the irreversible tangling and thickening of hair shaft--inspired "The Goose Girl" fairytale. 

 

The next exhibition room was probably my favorite, and no surprise, it's Civil War related. Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits details the types of injuries and illnesses soldiers faced, how medical practices and protocols changed over the course of the war, and focuses specifically on the hospitals in Philadelphia. The Civil War was the deadliest war in American history, costing over 700,000 lives. Most of these deaths, however, didn't come from battle, but from disease. Medical knowledge was still rather primitive compared to today's standards, lacking proper sanitation techniques, training, and operational procedures. An absurd number of dead, dying, and wounded flooded hospitals all over the country, forcing doctors to adapt their practices to fit their patients' needs. Out of the war came major medical innovations such as the triage system, sterilization, emergency-based hospital care, and pharmacology. Without these and many other advances, the death toll would have been much higher.

 

Some of the items on display include bones with bullet wounds, wax models of gangrene and other infectious diseases, and medical equipment used in the field. Also featured are vignettes of the doctors and nurses who helped pioneer advances in medical care, such as Dr. Silas Mitchell, the founder of American neurology who first documented "phantom limb syndrome" in amputee patients, and Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the first woman to ever receive the Medal of Honor. 
 

Adjacent to the Civil War display is Imperfecta, an exhibit about how the perception of abnormal human development changed over time. The exhibit starts with an introduction to embryology and teratology--the study of congenital abnormalities--then proceeds to display artifacts that detail (and often dramatize) the physical deformities these diseases present. Early works from the 16th and 17th centuries describe many of these ailments as "monstrous" and frequently exaggerate and fantasize the extent of their deformities. One book on display from the 1550s describes a particular birth defect called "Puppyknees," providing written and visual descriptions of a human with actual dog heads on his appendages. Another book documents the "Monster of Ravenna," the supposed birth of a child with a horned head, bat wings, and talons of an eagle.

 

During the late-18th and early-19th centuries, attitudes on physical deformities changed from abhorrence to amazement and wonder, marked by the emergence of circuses and the derogatorily-named "freakshows." This part of the Imperfecta exhibit, called "Agency and Exploitation of the Teratological Body," explores the monetization of, and fascination with, abnormal bodies. Some of the notable specimens on display are a preserved pair of thoracopagus twins (joined at the anterior thorax) and a parasitic, three-legged fetus.

 

I made my way downstairs to the specimen exhibits. The first thing I saw at the bases of the step was this enormous skeleton known as the Mütter Giant. The skeleton stands a gawking 7' 6" tall (the tallest on display in America) and are the remains of a 22 to 24 year-old male who suffered from acromegaly, a condition where the pituitary gland produces too much growth hormone. Next to the Giant is another skeleton, this one of a man named Harry Eastlack. Eastlack suffered from an incredibly rare disease known as fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP). Basically, when a body part was injured, bone would grow in place of soft tissue, causing the joints to fuse and stiffen. Eastlack and The Giant are just a couple of over 3,000 osteological specimens on display at the museum. 

 

Adjacent to the Osteology exhibit are the anatomical models. These models were constructed of clay, papier-mache, or wax, and were used to visually document the presentation of numerous diseases and deformities. One of the most famous models in the museum is of Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese twins. The conjoined twins were born in modern-day Thailand in 1811 and moved to the United States in 1830, hoping to make a living as performers. They were instant sensations. People traveled from all over the world just to witness the living spectacles. They were even featured as the main attractions for P.T. Barnum's American Museum in the 1860s. Upon their deaths in 1874, plaster casts were made of their bodies and their conjoined livers removed and preserved, both of which are on display at the Mütter Museum. 

 

Next came the Dried Specimens, soft tissue structures and lithics (stones of the human body) dehydrated for medical research, reference, and novelty. There are many specimens on display, including a 74-pound ovarian cyst and a collection of Tsantsa shrunken heads, but nothing quite compares to the Megacolon. This giant piece of intestine, stretching 8' 4" with a whopping 30-inch diameter, was taken from a 29 year-old male who suffered from Hirschsprung's Disease. The Wet Specimens exhibit followed, with over 1,300 jars full of preserved human organs, tumors, appendages, observable diseases, and cephalic cross-sections. For those of you who'd like to see something slightly less gruesome, the museum has 5,500 medical instruments and over 1,200 historical medical photographs on display as well.

 

Back upstairs, I observed one of the museum's most popular attractions: the Hyrtl Skull Collection. In the mid-19th century, Joseph Hyrtl, an Austrian anatomist, organized a collection of 139 skulls from all across the Eurasian continent. He spent decades analyzing their demographic and physiological characteristics trying to disprove the notions of phrenology, that cranial features were indications of intelligence and personality. Thanks to the efforts of Hyrtl and other scientists, phrenology is now considered a pseudoscience and has little, if any, bearing in the medical/anthropological communities today. All of his skulls are prominently displayed on the back wall of the main gallery, each marked with a name, age, location, approximate dates of birth and death, and manner of death.

 

Next, I saw slides of Albert Einstein's brain. The Mütter Museum is one of only two places in the world where this opportunity is possible, which is pretty amazing if you think about it! During Einstein's autopsy, it was found that his brain weighed less than average adult male (2.7 lbs versus 3 lbs); however, it was also discovered that the inferior parietal region of his brain (involved in mathematical operations and interpretation of sensory information) was 15% larger than average. His brain also showed higher concentrations of neurons in integration centers, which can be attributed to his intelligence. 

 

I ended my tour of the museum's exhibits with that of "The Soap Lady." This woman's body was exhumed from a local Philadelphia cemetery in 1875, and scientists were perplexed when they discovered a gray, waxy substance covering her remains. It was determined that the mysterious substance was adipocere, an uncommon by-product of decomposition formed by anaerobic bacteria in fatty tissue hydrolysis.  

Before I left, I made one final stop outside in the Benjamin Rush Garden. Benjamin Rush was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a founder of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia in 1787. This garden, dedicated in his memory, is accessible through the Thompson Gallery and features sixty different types of medicinal herbs. It's a very nice area to relax and take in all the medical information you've just crammed into your brain. 

 

The Mütter Museum surpassed all expectations. It was a beyond-incredible experience to visit this destination, especially for someone like me who has a great appreciation for medical history! Having a background in a medical or healthcare field certainly helps in comprehending the descriptive material attributed to many of the exhibits; but even if you lack such a background, you can make this a real learning experience and relish in the museum's shock value. The Mütter Museum should be visited and enjoyed by everyone, no matter the age nor amount of prior knowledge. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and general adult admission tickets are $18...well worth it, in my opinion! Next time you're in Philadelphia, make sure you visit the Mütter Museum. Don't pass up the opportunity to be "disturbingly informed!"

 

 

 

Access the Mütter Museum website HERE for tourist information

Check out some of the items on display via the Memento Mütter virtual museum!

Click HERE to view a PDF pamphlet on the Rush Gardens

 

**Due to a strict 'no photography' policy, I was unable to capture images of the artifacts on display for myself. All photographs of specimens and exhibits are used courtesy of The Mütter Museum and The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Credits and origin are given in each of the photographs' descriptions**

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