Sights like these are nothing out of the ordinary in the Mutter Museum.
After viewing several segments of Albert Einsteins brain and considering the cabinet of 139 human skulls, more than a few visitors are liable to realize what theyve let themselves in for by entering the place. Indeed, a growing sense of discomfort will most likely build as these people advance around the ghoulish gallery, wondering,perhaps, whatever possessed them to pay for admission.
Nearby is what is left of the Soap Lady her rotted corpse coated in some kind of waxy material and an array of terrifying medical aids. Waiting in another enclave, meanwhile, is a mold and the internal organs of conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker. Yes, with all this to come, many a visitor will surely admit to being tempted to head straight out of the nearest door. And yet, as if watching a horror movie, they nevertheless find it hard to look away from the bizarre exhibits of arguably Americas most spine-chilling institution: The Mtter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
Needless to say, the Mtter Museum is not for the squeamish. However, its worth noting that there was a noble aim behind the founding of what has since become easily central Philadelphias most macabre tourist attraction. The institution was founded in 1858 after some 1,700 items were gifted to the citys College of Physicians by pioneering surgeon Dr. Thomas Dent Mtter. It was Mtters desire that the medical tools be used to advance healthcare teaching throughout the U.S.
The Mutter Museum is home to an array of stomach-churning medical sights.
And perhaps Mtter was right to worry about the standard of medical procedures back then, for at the beginning of the 1800s in Philadelphia doctors could theoretically operate with no license or qualifications. Medical practices have, of course, come a long way since that time, but the Mtter Museum offers an eye-opening look at historical methods of identifying and handling all manner of illnesses.
The Mutter Museum is no place for the squeamish.
Among the displays, for example, is a replica of well-known Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker, complete with grimly fascinating conjoined liver. The pair originally hailed from Thailand known as Siam until 1949 but relocated to the U.S. in 1829. They would gain renown as The Siamese Double Boys in a traveling show and ultimately gave rise to the term by which their condition is now universally known.
From the outside, the Mutter Museum looks pretty innocuous.
In the Worden Gallery, meanwhile, is the somewhat unnerving sight of the preserved corpse of a two-headed baby curiously nicknamed “Jim and Joe.” Also located here is a seven and a half-foot skeleton – the loftiest example of its kind currently on show in North America.
The history of medicine is far darker and stranger than many may imagine.
And even the slightly more prosaic exhibits may be tinged with the macabre. For instance, the museum possesses an 18th-century book entitled Speculations on the Mode and Appearances of Impregnation in the Human Female. In 1887, however, a rather twisted physician bizarrely removed the skin from the thigh of a deceased woman known as “Mary L.” and bound the tome’s pages together.
Image: John Donges
Soap Lady is among the more terrifying curiosities on show.
Still, perhaps the most chilling curiosity that the Mütter Museum has to offer is the Soap Lady, who is thought to have died before the age of 40. This female corpse was unearthed from a local cemetery in 1875 and, uncommonly, is covered in adipocere, or grave wax. Her empty eyes and gaping mouth give the horrific impression of her gasping for air; the cause of her death, however, is unknown.
The museum was founded to help advance the standard of healthcare teaching in America.
However, many of the exhibits are as informative as they are disturbing. The Hyrtl Skull Collection, for instance, consists of 139 human skulls assembled by Austrian anatomist Joseph Hyrtl in the late 19th century. The Mütter Museum has exhibited the anatomist’s array of specimens in dramatic fashion since 1874, and most craniums on display here feature cards describing the person to which each belonged.
Image: John Donges
The Hyrtl Skull Collection is as creepy as it is informative.
Even in the mid-1800s, Hyrtl himself was widely known for his anatomical collection. It was common practice at that time to believe that a skull could offer indications of a person’s brainpower, temperament or ethnicity – a theory that Hyrtl aimed to discredit in his studies. His goal was to illustrate the disparity of head size among Caucasian Europeans.
Image: The Mutter Museum
Slides of Einstein’s brain have been on show at the museum since 2011.
The star attraction of the Mütter Museum, however, is undoubtedly the incredible collection of parts of Albert Einstein’s brain. And this extremely rare opportunity to see the great thinker’s gray matter on public display means that the museum owes a debt of gratitude to an opportunistic – and rather unethical – pathologist named Thomas Harvey.
Many of the museum’s exhibits look like props from horror movies.
In April 1955 Harvey completed Albert Einstein’s postmortem examination at New Jersey’s Princeton Hospital. After he finished, however, he took the extraordinary step of robbing Einstein of his brain. Harvey retained the ill-gotten organ in a jar and eventually divided it into 1,000 slides, which he offered to scientists around the globe. None of them, though, have ever unlocked the secret of Einstein’s genius.
The collection includes some of the strangest anatomical anomalies ever seen.
Harvey finally gifted what was left of Einstein’s brain to the Princeton Hospital. The Mütter Museum received its own box of brain slides in 2011, and they remain on display today. Incidentally, the rest of Einstein’s body – apart from his eyes – was cremated in accordance with his wishes.
Comprehensive models such as this were vital for early medical education, as corpses were not readily available.
Further potential historical highlights on show at the museum include a malignant tumor removed from the jaw of two-time U.S. president Grover Cleveland, a section of tissue from the vertebrae of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, and flesh samples of 20th president James A. Garfield.
Some of the items on display seem designed specifically to make visitors’ skin crawl.
Indeed, visitors to this skin-crawling attraction are left in no doubt that fact can be far stranger than fiction. People’s trip through the annals of medical history yields more dark and curious artifacts to do with the human form than perhaps even the most creative horror writer could dream up.
Image: John Donges
From dwarfs to giants, skeletons of all sizes can be seen at the museum.
The “Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits” exhibit, for example, contains a collection of items that explore the issues of medical procedures during the American Civil War and even features an interactive amputation exhibit. The spinal surgery display, meanwhile, boasts ancient tools that are bound to make visitors wince.
Image: Casey Bisson
The museum’s aim is, in part, to get patrons to see the human body’s “beauty;” some exhibits, though, demonstrate this better than others.
In spite of the stomach-turning nature of many of the Mütter Museum’s exhibits and artifacts, the establishment has gone from strength to strength since its opening and currently attracts more than 130,000 curious folk every year. Perhaps this is a sign that human nature is irresistibly attracted to the morbid and the macabre.
The institution has been collecting strange items for more than 150 years.
This growing popularity can be largely attributed to the fantastic work of one of the museum’s most highly regarded characters: Gretchen Worden. The former director seemingly single-handedly rescued the institution from being a little-known novelty stop to the draw it is today. Worden even appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman to wickedly scare the host with the museum’s more out-there items.
A display of conjoined twins at the Mutter Museum
Sadly, Worden died from the effects of Hodgkin’s disease in 2004, and the museum unveiled a gallery in tribute to her a year later. The unusual memorial is a room full of such beguiling items as detached human hands, a syphilis-ridden male skull and a dwarf’s skeleton – perhaps fitting, though, for such an oddball personality.
Image: The Mutter Museum
The Mutter Museum is like everybody’s worst nightmare in clinical form.
The museum also has an educational program aimed at kindling the interest of young students and inspiring them to embark upon careers in medicine and bioscience. It’s hard to say whether groups of visiting adolescents would be appalled or intrigued by the attraction’s blood-and-guts approach to medical history, but it certainly wouldn’t be a boring experience.