- Written by Todd Moning
Want to see the brain of a murderer or the tumor of an ex-president? How about wax depictions of eye diseases or a collection of human skulls?
The Mütter Museum at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia displays these and many other anatomical specimens and human abnormalities.
The museum is more than a collection of medical oddities, though. It's a unique window to medicine's past. The exhibits focus on the determination of 19th-century doctors to ease suffering, and on the courage of patients in the face of daunting medical challenges.
"Every exhibit in the museum has its own compelling story to tell," said Dick Levinson, the museum's director of public relations. "This is the perfect destination for anyone interested in medicine and the human body. And it's a must-see for anyone with a child or grandchild who dreams of becoming a doctor."
Levinson describes the Mütter Museum as "honest," "compelling," "unique."
The museum showcases human specimens — dried or skeletal, or preserved in liquid. Many displays are supplemented with medical models made from plaster, papier-mâché or, most realistically, wax.
Animal specimens, used for comparing to human specimens, are included as well.
You'll find a tumor that was removed from president Grover Cleveland's jaw while he was in office. The tumor is preserved in a glass jar.
View the Soap Lady, a naturally mummified woman. She was an obese woman when she died in the 19th century. Her burial coffin broke, exposing her body to the surrounding soil. A chemical reaction turned her body fat into a soap-like substance that preserved her remains.
Other items in the two-floor museum:
- a plaster death cast of Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins
- a human colon that expanded to 27 feet long
- Objects Swallowed and Removed — without surgery: includes bones, coins, and "dental material"
- wax models of eyeballs and eye injuries on the Eye Wall of Shame
- memorabilia items of scientists
- more than 100 catalogued human skulls
- a skeleton of a 7½-foot-tall man
- the brain of murderer John Wilson, hanged in Norristown, Pa., in 1887
- brains of animals
- a wax model of Madame Dimanche, a French washer woman, with a horn growing from her forehead
The Mütter’s collections and exhibits, originally used to educate medical doctors, are based on medical science and encourage lay visitors to examine what it means, physically, to be human.
Doctor started collection …
In the early 19th century, medical curriculums in the United States focused heavily on classroom lectures. Thomas Dent Mütter decided to study in Europe, where he worked with actual patients in hospital settings.
He returned to the United States, eager to convey the benefits of a hands-on approach to medical education. "He was only a young man but his big asset was that he was a fabulously wealthy man," Levinson said. "He spent $20,000 of his own money to assemble a teaching collection."
As professor of surgery at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, Dr. Mütter began to collect bones and tissue and to gather examples of many different diseases to assist in training medical professionals.
He accumulated more than 1,700 anatomical and pathological specimens that he used in the classroom.
Before his death in 1859, the doctor arranged to have The College of Physicians of Philadelphia maintain his collection, with the help of his generous endowment.
As the museum expanded its collections and appeal, medical personnel came to study and observe the College of Physicians' collection. Today it's a place where the general public can learn about the history of medicine and surgery.
The museum is at 19 S. 22nd St. halfway between Chestnut and Market streets. Free on-street parking for motorhomes may be available on JFK Boulevard. Towed vehicles can park in various lots in the museum's vicinity.
The museum is open Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: $14 for adults; $10 for seniors 65 and older, ages 6 to 17, and college students with school ID. Closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year's Day.
Schedule group tours (10 or more persons) in advance. More info: www.collphyphil.org, e-mail: museum @collphyphil.org.
Note: Generally, photography is not permitted inside the museum, but photo buffs may contact the collections manager, Margaret Lyman, ext. 244, for special permission.