The Mutter Museum In Philadelphia

The Mutter Museum in Philadelphia began as a teaching collection and has evolved into a bizarre repository for medical curiousities and abnormalities.

Creepy. Incredible. Gross. Morbid. Cool. These are but a few of the adjectives visitors use to describe the experience of a day at the Mutter Museum. And rest assured, any visit to the Mutter Museum will elicit some reaction. What began life as a highly specialized facility to preserve pathological anatomy has evolved into one of the most unusual museums anywhere.

During his lifetime as a physician and professor of surgery at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia Dr. Thomas Dent Mutter had pieced together a widely varied personal collection of over 1700 anatomical and pathological items he used in the classroom. Upon his retirement from ill health in 1856 at the age of 45, he approached the College of Physicians of Philadelphia to maintain stewardship of his assorted bones and plaster casts and wax models. Along with the collection, Mutter endowed the nascent museum with $30,000 to provide for a curator. In return, Mutter asked only that a permanent, fire-proof building be built within five years to house the collection. The final agreement was inked in 1859, just two months before Dr. Mutter's death.

That permanent home was found at 13th and Locust Streets in 1863. The Mutter Museum, with the aid of Dr. Mutter's generous endowment, enlarged its holdings significantly, including purchases from around the world. The College of Physicians' collection was well-known in the medical community as a place to observe and study. Most of the visitors were medical students, researchers and visiting physicians. In the modern age, however, it is not necessary for medicine to be taught by handling actual specimens and records can be accessed without looking up files.

Most of the visitors to the Mutter Museum these days are from the public at large, drawn to the medical repository to learn about the advancement of medicine and surgery by examining the more than 10,000 medical instruments from 1750 to the present. Included in this vast array are a sewing kit belonging to Florence Nightingale, the medicine chest of pioneering American surgeon Benjamin Rush and a wooden stethoscope believed to have been made by the inventor of the stethoscope in 1816.

Those interested in the physiology of conjoined twins can study the connected livers of Chang and Eng, the world's most celebrated Siamese Twins, whose autopsy was performed at the College of Physicians. Also on display is a plaster cast of their torsos showing the band of skin and cartilage that joined the brothers at the chest for 63 years.

And then there are the items that have earned the Mutter Museum its bizarre reputation. The Eye Wall of Shame, a display of wax models of eyeballs, depicts a wide assortment of eye injuries including a toothpick penetrating the retina. There is a skeleton of a seven-and-a-half-foot man and a cabinet of 139 carefully cataloged human skulls. In a glass case are the exhumed remains of The Soap Lady, an obese woman whose fat condensed into almost pure soap. Among the most famous of the 900 fluid-preserved anatomical specimens at the Mutter Museum is a massive human colon which engorged to a length of 27 feet and was a full eight feet around.

More than 20,000 people a year visit the Mutter Museum. It is located at 19 South 22nd Street in Philadelphia.

© High Speed Ventures 2011