PHILADELPHIA Mutter Museum may leave you shocked and horrified or amazed and fascinated. Either way, its collections of bones, bodies, body parts, plus tumors and other terrors are unforgettable.
The nation’s finest and oldest medical museum – celebrating its 150th anniversary March 4 – bills itself as “disturbingly informative” and that is absolutely true. Specimens lining its wood-and-glass display cases reveal the effects of epidemics and diseases on the body, as well as an amazing array of human curiosities and anomalies.
One of its newest – and most famous – attractions is the brain of legendary German physicist Albert Einstein, who developed the Theory of General Relativity. Truth be told, the museum just owns pieces of it, 46 to be exact, mounted on a set of microscope slides. But it’s quite a specimen and just one of five sets known to be in existence.
The Mutter is the repository for a who’s who of body parts, including skin samples collected during President James A Garfield’s autopsy, a cancerous tumor removed from President Grover Cleveland’s jaw and the 4th and 5th vertebrae from President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth.
The museum, on two stories of the stately College of Physicians of Philadelphia building at 19 N. 22nd St., is a place where forensic pathologists, like Fox TV’s Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan, would love to hang out. Its collection of 139 human skulls, numerous skeletons, plus additional dried bodies and body parts would provide a wealth of props for a ghoulish Halloween party or a very scary night at the museum.
“We don’t sugarcoat or glorify anything,” says curator Anna Dhody. “We ask visitors to come with open minds and focus on the subjects that appeal to them. We provide the diagnostic interpretations for the items they see in our displays.
“Some visitors tell us they feel nauseated by what they’ve seen, but that’s OK. It’s how they feel. Others tell us our specimens make them grateful to be born in the 20th century, with its antiseptics, antibiotics and anesthesia. Others say they’ve gotten a greater understanding of what it is to be human.”
Some treasures within the collection once were sideshow stars. Others could have been.
Chang and Eng, twins born in Siam, toured the world and inspired the term “Siamese twins” for conjoined twins. The pair, who married sisters and fathered 21 children, are stars of this category. A plaster death casting of their conjoined torsos is displayed, along with the preserved liver they shared.
The Wind Bag or Balloon Man, who also profited from putting himself on display, had a horribly distended abdomen, which you can see in a hospital photo taken shortly before his death from constipation. On display is his huge and grotesquely swollen bowel – nearly nine feet long and measuring from 10 to 30 inches in circumference. He suffered from a congenital condition which could have been surgically corrected today.
Additional weird wonders: The mysterious “Soap Woman,” whose body turned into a soap-like substance called adipocere or “grave wax“; a wax cast of a Parisian woman’s head, showing the 10-inch horn that grew from her forehead, and an ovarian cyst weighing 70 pounds.
In the believe-it-or-not category: Some 19th century physicians “remembered” deceased patients by having their skin turned into leather for binding books and making wallets and leather cases for medical tools!
The museum has interactive elements: visitors can try “reading the dead” using prompts from the museum’s cellphone tour to examine six skeletons for clues about their sex, age, race and maladies.
The museum, founded in 1858 by Dr. Thomas Dent Mutter and opened in 1863, originally focused on schooling doctors and improving the education of medical students who were not permitted to assist with patients or surgeries. It opened with 1,300 specimens Mutter collected to provide hands-on experiences for his students, but the collection has grown to more than 25,000 objects.
“Our educational mission has never changed, but our demographics have,” says Dhody. “The majority of today’s visitors do not have medical backgrounds, although we still see medical students and those in health-care-related fields. Many more come from the area’s middle schools and high schools
“Everyone has become more interested and fascinated by the human body. People are flocking to see the traveling ‘Body’ exhibitions and our own visitation has risen to an all-time high of more than 131,000 visitors.”
Figures are expected to climb even higher as word continues to spread about its offbeat contents. The gift of the Einstein brain slides in 2011 drew journalists from around the world. “I believe we’re the only place where people can see the actual samples,” Dhody says.
The slides were prepared in 1955 in the pathology lab of Dr. William Ehrich, chief of pathology at the Philadelphia General Hospital and the Graduate School of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania. Five sets were prepared; one was given to Dr. Ehrich by Dr. Thomas Harvey, who performed the post-mortem exam of Einstein at Princeton Hospital after he died at age 76 from an abdominal aneurysm.
There is controversy over whether Harvey was even authorized to remove Einstein’s brain, but by most accounts he was given the family’s permission to keep it for medical study.
The slides eventually ended up in the hands of Lucy Rorke-Adams, a senior neuropathologist at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and clinical professor of pathology, neurology and pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania. A longtime fellow of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Rorke-Adams turned them over to the Mutter.
The specimens are now on permanent display.
Another display delivers a lesson about “the price of beauty,” using the contorted skeleton of a woman who wore a corset laced so tightly and for so long that she displaced her abdomen and damaged internal organs, including her liver.
Dr. Chevalier Jackson’s eye-opening assemblage of items he retrieved from people’s throats reminds parents to watch their children and avoid putting non-food items in their own mouths. Among the 2,374 items he recovered and saved are open and closed safety pins, hair pins, a ship-shaped metal game piece, a perfect-attendance pin, dentures, a peach pit and the metal key from a sardine can.
“One of my missions as curator is showing the 21st century relevance of our primarily 19th-century collection,” says Dhody.
To that end, the museum’s 139 human skulls have been scanned and their details have been added to a data base that can be accessed by scientists working on projects such as designing better helmets to protect against concussions.
A 150-year-old cholera specimen in the museum’s collection contains DNA that can be compared to modern cholera’s DNA and could serve as an indicator of how it will evolve in the future.
Dhody muses aloud, “The true treasures of the museum still could be waiting to be found.”
Dhody is a hands-on – pun intended – curator. “I’ve gotten plenty of ribbing from my colleagues but I’m collecting jars of picked human skin from a woman with a compulsion to do it (dermatillomania). I’m even documenting the amount she picks each year. It is extremely rare to have physical manifestations of a psychological disorder.”
Besides the permanent collection, the museum presents special exhibits. On display is a preview of “Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits: Injury, Death and Healing in Civil War Philadelphia,” which focuses on Civil War-era medicine. It is scheduled to open later this year. Another, called “Grimm’s Anatomy: Magic and Medicine, 1812-2012,” explains the medical reasons behind the deformities and behaviors of the fairy tales’ characters.
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