The Mutter Museum

Fun with medical oddities.

A note about this article: several years ago I was contacted by Gretchen Worden, the director of the Mütter Museum, asking me to remove the images from my article. It turned out that the waiver I had signed in order to take photos (and was never given a copy of) stated that the photos would be for my own use and would not be published. At that time, I removed the entire article because it would have been much less interesting without the images. Fortunately, in this time of media saturation (and perhaps because the museum doesn't or can't check as carefully these days), many of the things I had photographed are available from other sources on the internet. So here, once again, is my article, except this time instead of my photos, the images are pulled right from the web, so if the museum has a problem with that, I suggest they contact the people who actually posted the images.

Crucufied Child

"Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! For a mere two dollars and fifty cents, you will see the most bizarre assortment of medical oddities this side of New Jersey! On your left, the two-headed baby! On your right, the horrific soap lady! Careful not to step on the liver of Chang and Eng! No shoving, right this way!"

In 1856, Thomas Dent Mütter started what has become one of the largest collections of medical specimens in the world housed at the College of Physicians in Philadelphia. Among the 20,000 medical instruments and pathological relics are 139 human skulls (each includes a brief biography of the former owner), strange bone defects, deformed babies, and various exemplary body parts from around the world. There are a legions of wax molds including every imaginable rare disease and the "eye wall of shame,"a wall of wax models of eye injuries. There are two enormous and meticulously documented cabinets of objects that had been inhaled or swallowed (including buttons, pins, nails, coins, badges, bones, fish hooks, bits of meat, and metal toys). The best part about the museum is that it's open to the general public!

Super Colon!One of the more remarkable pieces in the collection is the enormous colon (left) of a man who suffered from some horrible intestinal blockage for his entire life. When he died, his colon measured 25 feet long and 8 feet in circumference, and contained "three pails full of fecal matter." Also on display is a plaster cast of Chang and Eng, the famous Siamese twins who married sisters and fathered 21 children. Fortunately for the museum, they died in Philadelphia in 1874, so the museum also features their liver, which is what joined them at the torso.

Soap Lady

Another amazing exhibits is the "soap lady," (above) a woman who died in the 1790's. When she was exhumed 80 years later, it was discovered that due to the high moisture level of the soil and large quantity of fat in her body, she had changed into adipocere, a brown waxy substance that contains soap. According to the museum, a "soap man" is on display in the Smithsonian.

Cadaver Head Cross SectionBefore the days of color printing, medical students had to see things like the child's corpse (above, presumably used to show the paths of arteries and veins) or the cadaver head cross-section (left) to learn the ins and outs of anatomy. How odd to think that the inside of your head could be on display for the world to see.

The final section of the museum features an assortment of real stillborn infants with bizarre and rare birth defects such as "cyclopia," in which the baby resembles the mythical Cyclops. Also on display are a collection of embryos showing the monthly stages of fetal development. Could you imagine a doctor searching for a "3 monther" to fill out his collection?

The Mütter Museum has been called one of the most unusual places in the world, and I have to agree. It may be unsettling, but it's all in the name of medicine, so it can't be all bad. Just make sure you have a strong stomach and a taste for the bizarre!


The Mütter Museum is located in the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, 19 South 22nd St. (just south of Market), Philadelphia, PA 19103 Phone: (215) 563 3737.

© 1997, Ken B. Miller & Contributors as Listed. | Reproduced from Shouting at the Postman #23, May, 1997 | 6046

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