Disturbingly Informative, Not for the Faint of Heart

I finally got to visit the Mutter Museum, in Philadelphia. I’ve wanted to visit it for a couple of years, but something always intervened with my plans to do so. Finally, the stars aligned a few weeks ago; I wrote this post the same day I’d visited, so the reactions are very real, but raw.

Courtesy of the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

The museum feels very old-timey — and in a way it is, because much of its collection was collected in the  1800s and much of the collection is housed in wood and glass cabinets. At first I was almost disappointed, but before I knew it, I was engrossed in the displays.

So what is the Mutter Museum? Its collection consists of more than 20 thousand unusual, weird, REAL, anatomical specimens in a museum of medical history. The museum displays its beautifully preserved collections of anatomical specimens, models, and medical instruments in a 19th-century “cabinet museum” setting. The museum helps the public understand the mysteries and beauty of the human body and to appreciate the history of diagnosis and treatment of disease. As you progress around the exhibits, you definitely get a sense how diagnosis and treatment have evolved over the years. Frankly, I became grateful for the state of medical treatment today.

Tallest skeleton on display in North America, shown with an average skeleton and with a
skeleton of a woman who had dwarfism.

Courtesy of the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

It is NOT for the faint of heart. I found it fascinating but also a little horrific. There were a lot of skeletons and skulls. It is also not for children. I’d say they may get nightmares, but I’m not convinced I’m not going to have nightmares tonight, after visiting it today. (Note added later: I didn’t that night, but a few days later I did have a weird dream about the museum, that left me unsettled for most of the following day.)

What got me were the many baby and fetus skeletons. And quite a few babies preserved in bell-jars. That’s where this fascinating museum veered from purely fascinating and just a little disturbing into slightly nightmarish, when I started feeling sad for the woman who suffered from dwarfism and died trying to give birth to a normal-sized baby; at one point, the doctor killed the baby, attempting to abort it via dissection, to allow her to live. At the time she lived, C-sections were uncommon, and women more frequently died than lived who had them, but they tried that as well — the pain and torment before she died must have been horrific. The cranium of her baby was displayed by her feet (not shown in the photo above). I wondered whether she had agreed to let her skeleton be displayed — she lived in the late 1800s, and how likely was it that a doctor had gotten her permission before she died?

Regardless of how some of the older specimens were obtained, now all the specimens and human remains are treated with respect. There’s an “ossuary” display, which discusses the treatment of the remains and Mutter’s approach. An ossuary is a chest, box, building, well, or site — in this case a display cabinet — made to serve as the final resting place of human skeletal remains. They are frequently used where burial space is scarce — Europe has many. A body is first buried in a temporary grave, then after some years the skeletal remains are removed and placed in an ossuary, sometimes even displayed in attractive patterns and designs, as was Mutter’s.

In the left foreground is the Mutter ossuary. Courtesy of the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Then I saw the skeleton of Harry Eastlack, a man who lived with FOP until he died just 6 days shy of his 40th birthday. He suffered from Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, or FOP, and he willed his skeleton to Mutter after he died. FOP is a disorder in which muscle tissue and connective tissue such as tendons and ligaments are gradually replaced by bone (ossified), forming bone outside the skeleton (extra-skeletal or heterotopic bone) that constrains movement. Mr. Eastlack wanted his skeleton to be displayed at the museum to allow for additional research into FOP as well as to educated others about this terrible disease.

Harry Eastlack’s skeleton.
Courtesy of the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

The museum explains that the Collection began as a donation from Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter, who was determined to improve and reform medical education. Back when Mütter was a student at University of Pennsylvania’s medical school, students were not allowed to work with patients or help with medical surgical procedures. His disappointment with American teaching techniques drove him to Paris to receive hands-on training. Upon his return to the States, Mütter assembled the collection and offered it to the College with a $30,000 endowment. The donation stipulated that the College had to hire a Curator, maintain and expand the collection, fund annual lectures and erect a brick building to house the collection. The College has held true to its promise to Dr. Mütter.

It was very popular — I was surprised how crowded it got. Today the museum enjoys a steadily rising reputation and visitor count, and no wonder — the collection educates as well as fascinates.

In addition to what I’ve already discussed, the Mutter collection includes:

• Soap Lady
• Plaster cast and conjoined liver of “Siamese twins” Chang & Eng
• Specimen from John Wilkes Booth’s vertebra
• Jaw tumor of President Grover Cleveland
• a section of Einstein’s Brain
Getting there: 19 South 22nd Street, Philadelphia, PA 191103

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Sunday; closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

Website: http://muttermuseum.org/

Dr. Joseph Hyrtl’s human skull collection; Courtesy of the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

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