In Philadelphia, a medical museum puts the human body on display


"Where are the shrunken heads?" 

Any day you get to ask that question is a good day.  

When the answer could easily be "Go right at the orangutan's brain, and they're just past the leper's leg," that's the best day, because that means you're at the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.  

The Mütter (pronounced MOO-ter) is a world-renowned medical museum and a wonderland for anyone curious about the human body - especially what happens when we are visited by illness, injury or conditions that cause our morphology to deviate from the norm.  

On a chilly, overcast Labor Day weekend, the warm wood interior and soft lights of the museum are comforting in the way old academic buildings so often are. This is true even though the first thing in one's eye line are 139 human skulls, in long, neat rows. It's the Costco of the Damned.  

This is the collection of anatomist Josef Hyrtl, meant to show the diversity of Caucasian craniums in Europe and debunk the theory of phrenology, which held that skull shape signaled intelligence and "racial differences caused anatomical differences," as per the Mütter's website.  

The Mütter's collection is so fantastic - from the unique specimens such as fetal twins conjoined at the skull, to the slice of Einstein's brain, to something as average as a human heart - that until you see something like the skull collection, it's easy to forget that these are teaching tools. The giant megacolon, a human colon about the size of a rolled-up carpet, is a perfect example of why this is so important. It's the colon of a 29-year-old man who had Hirschsprung's disease, in which nerves in the colon don't develop properly and waste doesn't move along; it just accumulates. The man died in 1892. The condition now is easily treated, relieving one aspect of human suffering via the advance of medicine, which is something physician Thomas Dent Mütter was all about.  

This museum "honors several pioneer doctors from the 19th century," devoted to the college's mission to "advance the science of medicine and to thereby lessen human misery," Mütter curator Anna Dhody says via email. "Obviously none more so than our namesake Dr. Mütter."  

One medical model on display was brought to the United States by Mütter in 1831, when he returned from studying medicine in Paris. The model is of Madame Dimanche - a woman who had a horn growing out of her forehead, curving to just below her chin. It was eventually removed by surgeons. In her book "Dr. Mütter's Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine," Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz writes that in this model, Mütter "saw his future."  

Indeed, he would become a pioneer in the field of plastic surgery.  

In our culture, it is characterized by buoyant breasts and overinflated lips. In Mütter's time, it was revolutionary - and far less elective. A popular teacher and exemplary surgeon at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, he became well-known for his work on burn victims and those with conditions such as a club foot or cleft palate. He invented a surgical technique called the Mütter flap - variations are still in use today - and was the first surgeon in Philadelphia to use ether anesthesia in the mid-19th century, which invites us to imagine what surgery was like without it.  

Aptowicz's beautifully written book describes how Mütter advocated for things that we now take for granted, such as aftercare and cleanliness, and about his gentle empathy with his patients. He bequeathed his medical collection to the college and donated $30,000 (more than $800,000 today), which made the museum possible. One stipulation of his bequest was the collection's ongoing use "for educational and scientific purposes through our Center for Education, and the Mütter Research Institute," Dhody says. "We'd like to think that Dr. Mütter would be very happy with the work we're doing, building upon his original gift." 

The crowd today, lots of live humans entranced by the experiences of dead ones, would make him very happy. You can't avoid learning something here - even something as simple as respect for your healthy colon.  

I can't help but wonder, though, from whence comes the desire of so many of us to seek out oddities, to gaze at a skeleton of fetal conjoined twins or genital warts strung like a necklace. Why do we like this stuff?  

Oriana Aragón, a psychologist and assistant professor in the marketing department of the College of Business at Clemson University, suspects that there is a trifecta of reasons that make some become moths to the Mütter's flame.  

First, there's "evocative emotion," a bit of an adrenaline rush from the shock of seeing the amazing things our bodies are capable of and seeing it in person, not on a screen, so we can fully believe it.

"They're seeking the feels" of awe and intrigue, she says.  

Second is access. Anything we learn about our bodies can contribute to our survival; here, we're getting classified information.  

"We're not doctors; we don't get access into this world," she says. Bonus: The museum environment gives us permission to be curious. You can't just stare at a co-worker's neck and say, "Is that a rash?" Here, you're free to indulge your interest.  

Finally, Aragón says, "when you consider someone else's experience relative to your own, you're mapping their experience onto your experience." You're empathizing, wondering how, for example, you would go through your day if you were conjoined with a sibling.  

Plus, as you look through the exhibit glass, you often catch your own reflection imposed over what or whoever is behind it and are blended with the example of leprosy or gangrene on the other side. It allows you to map onto that experience, she says, but it can give you a sense of safety because it's not happening to you.  

I was awed by the Mütter's uncanny catalogue of humanity and the variable, vulnerable nature of our bodies. We see enough "perfect" bodies - too many. The Mütter invites us to connect more deeply. As the exhibit text for "Imperfecta" puts it: "Although abnormal human development has been studied and classified by medical science, it still touches the deepest part of our psyche, prompting us to question what it means to be imperfect."  

It means to be connected. When you realize how vulnerable our bodies are and that we're all weird, then no one is.  

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Langley is a writer based in Orlando, Florida. Her website is lizlangley.com. Find her on Twitter: @LizLangley. 

- - -  

IF YOU GO  

Mütter Museum 

19 S 22nd St., Philadelphia  

215-560-8564  

muttermuseum.org  

Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year's Day. Adults, $18; seniors, $16; military, $15; youths and students, $13; children 5 and younger free. Discount of $2 per ticket on Mondays and Tuesdays.


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