The College of Physicians of Philadelphia is the oldest professional medical society in the United States. It was founded in 1787 by 24 important Philadelphians, including Benjamin Rush who was a big hotshot doctor, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, the founder of Dickinson College, a professor at Penn, a big proponent of bloodletting, the ‘Father of American Psychiatry’ and the guy who patched up the 10-year rift between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Busy guy. Best buds again, Adams and Jefferson would go on to die within a few hours of each other on 4 July, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. That is so cool.
In 1858, Thomas Dent Mütter (it’s pronounced Mooter, as the museum reminds you at every turn), a member of the College of Physicians, bequeathed his collection of medical specimens and pathological oddities to the college plus $30 000 to support the collection, whose original purpose was medical research and education. Now it seems to be mostly a Mecca for teenage boys who like to be grossed out, although I did see a couple of med students in there during a recent visit bragging on their superior knowledge of abnormal body parts and flesh-eating diseases.
And what a collection it is! To start with, there are lots and lots of skulls, many of them from Italian brigands for some reason. There’s a skeleton of a 7’6″ man, a wax model of a woman with a giant horn coming out of her head and the Soap Lady, whose body turned into a soapy substance known as adipocere. You can read about that here. And by the way, if you need further proof of what a sick place the Interwebs can be, just Google adipocere.
Don’t miss the nine foot colon — the human average is 6 feet — that contained 40 pounds of fecal matter at the time of death of its 29-year-old owner, a circus sideshow performer known as Balloon Man and the Human Windbag (because the giant colon and extreme constipation gave him a gigantic stomach). There are also a great many preserved human fetal specimens, mostly deformed stillborns, including one with a single eye. It’s hard to believe these are real — they look like delicate marble statues of freakish babies. You can also see book covers and wallets made of human flesh. Apparently it was a thing in the 19th Century.
The fused liver and death cast of Chang and Eng Bunker are here as well. The Bunkers were the conjoined brothers who provided the basis for the term Siamese Twins (because they were born in Siam; they were actually of Chinese extraction and were known as the Chinese Twins in Siam). They married sisters and eventually had 21 children between them. Yikes. Their autopsy was performed at the College of Physicians.
There’s a tumour from the palate of Grover Cleveland and a bit of the thorax of John Wilkes Booth. There are 20 000 items in all at the museum, including Chief Justice John Marshall’s bladder stones and about 2 000 weird things retrieved from people’s stomachs (coins, toys, dentures) by Dr Chevalier Jackson in the late 19th, early 20th Centuries using only forceps and a long tube (he invented the endoscopy). The most recent acquisitions are 46 microscope slides, each containing a slice from the brain of Albert Einstein. The pathologist who did the autopsy basically swiped Einstein’s brain (not to mention his eyes) and over 50 years later, bits of it turned up at the Mütter.
The gift shop has stuffed plush giant microbes for every malady you can imagine (Chlamydia and the Common Cold are particularly cute) and Soap Lady Soap on a Rope. I want.
I am not a teenage boy, but I must admit to finding the Mütter fascinating, if a bit queasy-making. The disturbingly informative exhibits are significantly classed up by all of the marble, high ceilings and wood paneling around the museum, making it feel like a place to be educated (as well as grossed out). For more fun, check out the Mütter’s YouTubeChannel.
The Mütter Museum. 19 S. 22nd St., Philadelphia, PA.