By Claire Warriner, @CLWarriner
This April, I found myself in Philadelphia as a guest at the wedding of two people I’d never met. In addition to stuffing myself with crab Rangoon and avoiding eye contact with the groom’s mother, I visited the gruesomely fascinating Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Often described as a museum of oddities, this three-room space houses the extensive anatomical and pathological collection of Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter, a plastic surgeon who was active in the city between 1841 and 1850.
The most visually striking feature of the museum is The Hyrtl Skull Collection. Each skull is accompanied by a small handwritten note card that reads more like a turn-of-the-century novella than a medical history: “Prague, Araschtau Gottlieb, age 19, Suicide by potassium cyanide because of suspected unfaithfulness of his mistress, Right supraorbital notch, long nasal aperture.” The display also contains a so-called “hydrocephalic imbecile” with an unsettlingly offset jaw, and a disproportionate number of “gypsy” skulls, perhaps mirroring the entrenched racism of the time.
Opposite this display are a set of otherwise unremarkable hardcover books whose leather bindings are made of, evidently, human skin. Next to these are an array of nineteenth-century gynecological instruments large enough to make your cervix crawl up inside your thoracic cavity. Other artifacts in the collection include a bladder stone the size of a peach pit, a wax model of “moist gangrene of the hand,” a liver deformed by years of pressure from a corset, and a desiccated corpse, sans skin, whose arms spread outward in a position of heavenly ascent. Furthermore, the museum has three two-headed human fetuses at various stages of development.
Of all the pieces in the museum, it was the giant human colon, a product of Hirschsprung’s Disease, that is the most unforgettable. Appearing at first to be a lumpy bolster pillow, it lies in a dusty display case beneath the stairs. At approximately four by one feet, the colon was capable of holding 40 pounds of feces. The human vehicle of this enormous tube suffered chronic constipation, a distended abdomen, and could go up to a month without a bowel movement. The giant colon, like the entire Mütter Museum, inspires a heady mixture of awe and disgust at the idea that something as familiar as the human body can deviate along so many dark paths into the strange lands of pathology. Definitely worth a visit if you’re ever in Philadelphia.Photo Credits: George Widman Photography LLC, Licensed for use by the Mutter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia (2009), used with permission.