In the late 19th century, human skin was used for book-binding, to make instrument cases, etc. If you want to see a baby blue wallet made of human skin, go to 19 South 22nd Street in Philadelphia, PA and enter the Mütter Museum.
Advertised as Disturbingly Informative, the Mütter became a goal destination for me the minute Andrew, a college student, told me about it recently. One of my more unusual travel experiences was the Pauls Stradins Museum of the History of Medicine in Riga, Latvia. See blog “Riga’s Take Your Medicine Museum” for details.
In the 19th century Doctor Thomas Dent Mütter earned a reputation for performing successful operations on cleft palates, harelips, crossed eyes, etc. He collected more than 1,700 anatomical and pathological specimens to assist in teaching. The year before he died he gave his treasures to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia along with $30,000 to maintain them.
This assemblage of weirdness to people like me who aren’t in the medical field has been in the same spot since 1908 still mostly in original 19th century cases. Browsing the 2 levels of the inexpensive-to-visit Mütter is kind of like viewing a silent horror movie with Bela Lugosi. It is, not surprisingly, very, very popular. Photography is not allowed.
Founded to educate future doctors about medical anomalies, this horror chamber delivers them in every display. The heart (brain, intestines, etc.) of the collection is on two levels in 8 major displays with lots of grisly stuff. One of them is the Hyrtl Skull collection that arrived here in 1874 but has been refreshed. One attempt-at-humor sign explains, “After more than 100 years everybody needs a little repair!” Skulls are identified like this: “Vienna, age 16, suicide.”
A 20-year-old man with a diseased colon, now at eye-level and called Megacolon, was exhibited in a 10¢ museum as Balloon Man. Need I say more?
The Mütter Mega-stars, however, are Chang and Eng. Plaster casts of the famous, original Siamese twins are on vivid display. Their autopsy was performed here when they died in 1874. After exhibition tours gave them $, these conjoined Chinese brothers became farmers and raised 21 children.
This Museum is clearly attempting to offer something new. Just before I learned about Rapunzel Syndrome, I saw a sign–Coming: Broken Bodies–Suffering Spirits: injury, death and healing in Civil War Philadelphia. Another reported: a Bone Conservation Exhibit soon!
Rapunzel Syndrome results in a human hairball, medical name trichobezoar. I headed for the exit and sunshine when I read that the largest one weighed 10 pounds and was surgically removed from an 18-year-old woman in Chicago in 2007.
Make no mistake. The Mütter is a truly fascinating place if you’re a fan of the offbeat and gruesome. I often am, but I was a bit disappointed with the Mütter’s mustiness so my diagnosis is 4 Compass.