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Mütter Museum

The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia is the strongest contender yet for the coveted role of the most bizarre museum on the planet. The museum is housed in a two-tiered gallery, encased in the dark hardwood cabinets and wavy glass panes of a venerable learning institution. It is the public display area of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, a school founded in 1787 to promote such noble goals as bioethics, the relevance of medical history to public policy, and the recognition that medicine is both an art and a science. The Mütter Museum is also a medical freak show of deformed bones,

diseased organ specimens, instructional wax models of various pathologies, and things in jars that will give sensitive people nightmares.

During Weird Pennsylvania’s visits to the Mütter, we’ve seen nursing students turn pale and dizzy at cross-sections of human heads, teenage boys laughing at wax models of eyes suffering from a variety of ailments (including a huge splinter through the cornea), and rather creepy-looking people paying very close attention to skulls eaten away by syphilis. All these responses are perfectly normal, and anyone who doesn’t go through all of them at various points during their visit is probably just not looking carefully enough. Incidentally, not looking carefully enough at some of these exhibits is also perfectly normal.


You don’t have to be a medical student, doctor, or ghoul to find something fascinating on display at the Mütter Museum. There are medical instruments dating back hundreds of years. There’s a collection of more than a hundred healthy-looking skulls, each with a brief biography, collected to debunk the myth that you can determine personality or intelligence by the shape of the cranium—a pseudoscience called phrenology. There are also skulls with holes in them, cut deliberately in a process called trepanning or trephining that relieves pressure on the brain from internal bleeding.

But there are some moments of stomach-turning unpleasantness too. Two of the milder examples lies in a transparent sarcophagus at the top of the stairs. One is the wax face of a woman with a huge horn growing from her forehead. Another is a dark brown cadaver from the early 1800s whose body was exhumed during road construction. They call her the Soap Lady. Like many people of the time, she was buried in sackcloth sprinkled with lye. Under the ground, the woman’s body fat reacted with the lye to form a soap-like substance that preserved her body in a creepy sort of mummification. Next to her open-mouthed body is her x-ray portrait, which is a lot easier on the eyes. Down the stairs from the mezzanine gallery, things get nastier. One exhibit looks a long leather sack

stuffed with straw, but is actually a preserved colon. This horrifically distended stretch of guts lacked the power of peristalsis, the squeezing motion that nudges everything you eat steadily on its way. The poor fellow who once contained this organ was so backed up that he died from pressure on his other organs. What you can hope to learn from this is limited, except perhaps to eat plenty of vegetables and other dietary fiber.

There are also some celebrities on display. Standing under a spotlight, glowing white, is  plaster cast of Chang and Eng, the conjoined twins from Thailand (then called Siam), whose fame gave the world the term Siamese twins. Two celebrity body parts of a more presidential nature are also on display—a tumor removed in secret from the jaw of President Grover Cleveland during his term of office, and the thorax of Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, taken out during his autopsy.

The Mütter Museum does have a serious teaching role, and if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to latch on to a group of medical or nursing students as they’re given a guided tour. The rest of us must be led our own curiosity, as long as we remember the cardinal rule: Wait at least an hour after meals before diving in. You’ll thank us for that bit of advice when you reach the specimen jars.

You can read about all of Pennsylvania’s Roadside Oddities and other curious attractions if Weird Pennsylvania.

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