Headless babies in jars. A skinned penis. The world’s largest colon.
Ladies and gentlemen, if these three things alone aren’t enough to spark your interest, I don’t know what is. But what, you ask, am I talking about? Where could these, and other disturbing pieces of macabre medical history, possibly exist? I am talking about one of the US’s best little hidden gems of a museum – the Mütter Museum.
The Mütter Museum is tucked away at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. While its original purpose was to help educate burgeoning doctors about anatomy and human medical anomalies, it has since opened its doors to the curious public.
I remember the first time I heard the words Mütter Museum uttered. I was sitting in a little pub with a friend when I heard him say the words “a huge collection syphilis skulls”. Eh? Ok, I admit my attention had drifted to something now forgotten in the street and having a propensity for all things odd, these words were enough to whiplash myself back into the conversation.
“What’s that you said about syphilis skulls?”.
“There is a museum in Philly that has all sorts of wierd stuff – the Mütter Museum – like medical oddities including a collection of skulls eaten away by syphilis.”
“Damn. That’s gross. (slight pause) Let’s google it!”
God bless the invention of modern technology because out came a handy dandy iPhone and away we went to the world wide web and the domain of all things medically weird, disformed and plain ol’ fucked up. And that’s when I saw “her” – the lady who started my fascination for the Mütter Museum, the woman who would get me to pack my bags, grab a couple of adventurous friends and head off on a 350 mile road trip to Pennsylvania. But first… a brief history of this mecca of creepy weirdness.
Until Death Do Us Part
What does one do with one’s collection of medical chotchkies upon one’s demise? Well if you happen to be Dr. Thomas Mütter, you leave them to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. OK – so at first the collection started with another professor at the College – but it’s not names after him and he only got up to 92 artifacts. Mutter had over 1700 in his collection. But I suppose he’s warrants a mention here.
In 1856, Mütter announced his retirement from teaching at the College due to ill health. In a letter written to the College, Dr. Mütter wished to offer the guardianship of his extensive collection of medical oddities. “A popular professor of surgery at Jefferson Medical College, Mütter had amassed a unique and valuable collection of anatomical and pathological materials for use in his classes.”1 Along with this collection, Mütter also offered an endowment of $30,000 to pay staff and asked that the College build a fire-proof building to house the collection. The College entered into an agreement with Mütter in 1859 – just two months before he dies at the age of 48.
Dr. Mütter’s collection of bones, wet specimens, plaster casts, wax and papier-mache models, dried preparations, and medical illustrations – over 1700 items in all – joined the 92 specimens from the College’s earlier collection in the new quarters.1
The collection now has over 20,000 objects including antique medical equipment, skeletal and dried specimens, plaster models, a woman turned to soap, shrunken heads, the connected livers of famous Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, brains of epileptics and “her” – Madame Dimanche, a 19th-century French woman who had a 10-inch horn growing out of her forehead. Yes. A 10 inch horn. The horn, known by its scientific name as a cornu cutaneum, grew out of the forehead of Madame Dimanche for six years before it was successfully removed.
Madame Dimanche was, not forgotten, but tucked away for a few months until one night in another pub, with another group of friends, the subject of the Mütter Museum once again wiggles its way into polite conversation. I mention it. No one has ever heard of it. So, we grab another mobile phone to find photos of the mysterious horn. From this web search, we ladies form a fascination with seeing Mde. Dimanche up close and personal. (Our male compatriots, wanting nothing to do with Mde. Dimanche or our odd bar conversations have called it more of an obsession – they may be correct.)
A idea is born and a plan is hatched, team shirts are made (true story) – and not too long after we are in the car on our way to Mütter.
Day 1 – The Drive
And so here we are. It’s a bright and sunny October morning in 2009. Christina, Tiffany and myself make our way south. The closer we got to our destination – the more the clouds come in – but it was pretty much smooth sailing until we hit New York City and the George Washington bridge. The Yankees were playing the Phillies in the playoffs – and traffic was backed up. There was traffic and then there was rain. An approximate 6 hour trip turned out to be longer than anticipated, but we were not deterred. This was a meeting with destiny. We arrived at our hotel just over 8 hours (and about 6 roadside hotdogs) after leaving New Hampshire.
Day 2 – The Experience
We rolled our tired selves out of bed and out into the drizzly, cold rain that has decided to settle in on our weekend. Arming ourselves with umbrellas, grabbing our cameras and good humor we navigated ourselves into the heart of Philadelphia. Finally, we were just a few steps away from the museum.
The Mutter is a stately and elegant brick building surrounded by regal wrought iron gates. Doric columns welcome visitors as they pass through the heavy wooden door. Upon its facade, just right of the main entrance, hung an oversize banner that read “Disturbingly Informative”. Never has a tag line so perfectly summed up the experience.
The Mutter is small in size – but HUGE in personality. It’s collection is housed in 19th century glass display cases – some as tall as 8 feet. The cases are filled from the floor to the top shelf. My companions and I find ourselves kneeling on the floor with our heads turned upside down to get a better view of some of the exhibits located on the bottom shelves. We had arrived early, so at first this isn’t really a problem, but as the crowd starts to grow, I noticed a growing sense of annoyance from some other visitors that they have to step over us. Oh well.
It must be mentioned that Christina, a funeral director, possesses the patience of a saint. One of the best possible companions to have on a journey like this – as she is medically trained in human anatomy and disease. We kept piling all sorts of questions on her and we kept getting fascinating explanations that your typical visitor never hears.
We spent nearly 3 hours in a museum probably no bigger than 5000 square feet.(I don’t know the exact size so this is just a guesstimate at best.)
Located adjacent to the thorax of John Wilkes Booth was another exhibit that held our complete attention – shrunken heads from South America. There was such unbelievable detail left on the heads of these poor fallen warriors. Long eyelashes, hair, pores – just amazing! While most of the exhibit had numbers you could dial for more detailed information on ones cell phone, this exhibit, being relatively new was missing from the directory.
Unfortunately, no photography is allowed in the museum. Surprisingly, we obeyed this rule and left without any internal photos from the museum. What were we thinking?!?! We aren’t usually that well behaved. But this blogger apparently had no suck qualms. You can view pictures of the inside of the museum here.
Oh and here she is… Madame Dimanche. The one who started it all…