The Mutter Museum at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia promises -- and delivers -- an afternoon of esoteric and incredible sights. The sophisticated, high-ceilinged gallery that houses this collection of medical monstrosities helps us rationalize our interest in it. Designed for perusal by present and future members of a dignified profession, the museum is two floors of dark wood-trimmed display cases with a library-like stateliness. Shouts of, "Will ya look at this monster baby?" are entirely inappropriate.
The Mutter Museum collection of pathological specimens is well-known in medical circles, long ignored by the general public (though we may have contributed a bit to raising current awareness). Where else can you see a plaster cast of Chang and Eng -- and their actual attached livers? Or the Chevalier Jackson Collection of objects swallowed and removed -- you don't say! Brains of murderers and epileptics -- I guess we could take a peek . . .
President's Tumor and Assassin's Thorax
Two celebrity body parts are must sees: the "Secret Tumor of Grover Cleveland," and the "Thorax of John Wilkes Booth." Grover's growth floats in a small jar, surreptitiously removed from his jaw while he was in office. Lincoln's Assassin's thorax was procured during the post mortem aboard a ship at the Washington Navy Yard. It ended up here.
The Big Colon
One highlight is a giant colon that looks like a sand worm from Frank Herbert's Dune -- arranged with one end rearing up from the tastefully underlit display. Doctors were applauded for being able to correctly diagnose this whopper a gross enlargement of the colon and not as a tumor -- without using X-rays. This digestive distention serves as an inspiration to new generations of doctors, and a warning to those of us who sometimes feel a little backed up (In 2013, the Museum started selling a Mega Colon plush toy in its gift shop).
Objects Swallowed and Removed
The Chevalier Jackson Collection of over 2,000 items is neatly organized in narrow lie-flat drawers. Dr. Jackson was an expert in this subspecialty, and many of the instruments he designed and used to extract foreign objects without surgery are on display here. Some drawers are marked "bones"or "coins", others offer "Nuts, Seeds, Shells or Other Vegetal Substances." "Dental Material" is proof that sometimes people do swallow their dentures.
The Soap Woman
Perhaps the oddest attraction is the body of the "Soap Woman." This is the body of a woman who died of Yellow Fever sometime in the 19th century and was buried in soil with certain chemical properties . . . that turned her into soap! An accompanying display shows an x-ray cross-section and tells her story. A "Soap Man," buried alongside the Soap Woman, is occasionally displayed at the Smithsonian Institute.
After every visit, our notebooks are brimming over. Here are some of the exhibits:
- Skeletons of a giant and a midget
- Broken bones
- Pott's Disease Skeletons
- Skull Collections, including the Muniz collection of trephinated (holes cut in them) Peruvian skulls
- "Brain Of A Murderer" - John Wilson hanged in Norristown, PA
- "Brains of epileptics"
- Longitudinal slices of the head, showing brain
- Brain of animals arranged from tiny frog to man, often with eyes attached
- Large collection of baby deformities.
- Hearing apparatus's of mammals in butterfly collection-like cases.
- Photo of Lyndon Johnson lifting his shirt to show off his gall bladder operation scar
- Wax Renderings of Eye Disease Problems
- Iron Lung in the polio exhibit
The death in 2004 of Mutter Museum director Gretchen Worden was a big blow to this quirky showcase. She was an indefatigable booster of the museum during her 15+ year watch, increasing attendance from several hundred to over 60,000 a year. The Mutter showed its appreciation by converting a storage room to a gallery, dedicating it to Gretchen, and using it to exhibit medical oddities drawn from the museum's collection of 20,000 items. It also clamped down on shutterbugs. Visitors are no longer allowed to snap photos inside the museum.