Be Disturbingly Informed: The Mütter Museum

The invitation is right there on the landing page of one of the most engaging of medical museums: “We invite you to explore our world and become Disturbingly Informed.” Founded in 1858 for the purpose of research and education, its modern day persona belies its origin in the august milieu of ‘Philadelphia medicine’.  The Mütter curators have relished exposing the public to its collection of anatomical oddities.

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College of Physicians of Philadelphia

Thomas Dent Mütter (1811-1859) was a revered innovative surgeon who pioneered reconstructive (plastic) surgery. He was one of the seven Famous Faculty of ’41 (1841) at Jefferson Medical College, along with the likes of the eponymous Drs. Pancoast and Meigs. He was a member of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the oldest private medical society in America. It was founded in 1787 by John Morgan, (who also founded the first medical school in America), along with two dozen others, including Benjamin Rush. Its educational legacy includes the Mütter Museum and The Historical Medical Library.

 Dr. Mütter

Dr. Mütter

 His reconstructive surgery

His reconstructive surgery

The Mutter Museum

When Dr. Mütter died he left $30,000 and 1700 medical artifacts to the College. Thus the Mütter Museum was founded, in 1863. It now has 25,000 objects and a robust program to display them. 

The web site is comprehensive and pictorial. There are currently eight permanent exhibits dealing with spinal surgery, the Rush Medical Garden, the Civil War, a skull collection, Soap Lady, Einstein’s brain, casts of Chang and Eng Bunker and the Chevalier Jackson collection. 

Seven online exhibits deal with drawing anatomic anomalies, radium in America, civil war medicine, astrology in medicine, WWI medicine, vaccines and—the one to click on for sure—“Memento Mütter", an interactive web site “that allows you to get uncomfortably close to the Mütter Museum in the comfort of your own home.”

Special exhibitions in the past dealt with such topics as medicine in Alice in Wonderland and Grimm’s fairy tales. 

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One can find coverage of the Mütter all over the web. Mental Floss wants you to know about the 11 Weird (and Awesome Things)… there. And there is always the Wikipedia article, in which we learn about Gretchen Worden, its famous curator and director who for decades brought the museum’s artifacts and stories to NBC, PBS, BBC and NPR. 

She wrote in her book on the Musuem "While these bodies may be ugly, there is a terrifying beauty in the spirits of those forced to endure these afflictions.” Which takes the edge off a bit when you read the New York Times description of the posthumously named Gretchen Worden Room:

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“There are jars of preserved human kidneys and livers, and a man's skull so eaten away by tertiary syphilis that it looks like pounded rock. There are dried severed hands shiny as lacquered wood, showing their veins like leaves; a distended ovary larger than a soccer ball; spines and leg bones so twisted by rickets they're painful just to see; the skeleton of a dwarf who stood 3 feet 6 inches (1.07 m) small, next to that of a giant who towered seven and a half feet. And "Jim and Joe," the green-tinted corpse of a two-headed baby, sleeping in a bath of formaldehyde.”

 Gretchen Worden

Gretchen Worden

 Anna Dhody

Anna Dhody

The current curator, Anna Dhody, has promoted hundreds of videos on Youtube, including Mütter Minute and Guess What’s on the Curator’s Desk. She also cavorts with Dirty Jobs Mike Rowe in a few segments. 

A documentary video produced by the Discovery Channel is available online as well, although it is a bit dated (2001).

The Historical Medical Library

An incunable is a book printed before 1501. The Library has an astonishing 400 such volumes. Amongst its holdings are copies of On The Seats and Causes of Disease by Morgagni, published in 1761. Their copy was given to John Morgan by Morgagni. The 12,000 rare books include de Motu Cordis by Harvey (1628) and De humani corporis fabrica by Vesalius (1543).

 Morgagni

Morgagni

 De sedibus...

De sedibus...

The library offers many resources online as part of the Medical Heritage Library consortium and is supported by the activities of the Francis Clark Wood Institute for seminars and travel grants. 

One of its unique collections is the correspondence of Civil War Surgeon (and College of Physicians of Philadelphia member) S. Weir Mitchell and a separate site devoted to the history of vaccines.


Dr. Mutter's Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine

Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz.
Aptowicz draws nicely on Mütter’s speeches and lectures to reveal the depth of his empathetic philosophies and humanist approach.—Kirkus Reviews

The Mutter Museum Of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia

This book features over 100 photographs by a select group of renowned photographers whose work appears in the award-winning Mutter Museum calendars


Reading Matter

Christin O’Keefe Aptowicz has written a biography of Mütter and discussed his life in an article in the Smithsonian web site. She was interviewed about Mütter by the History News Network. Aptowicz’s bookWorden’s book and a book of photographs are linked here through our Amazon affiliation, or you can explore the catalogue of history of medicine books.  

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