Hello, Lovelies! Welcome to the blog post of Rebecca’s episode covering the incredible Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania! If you’re thinking about visiting this amazing museum, you can Click Here to check out their wesite or Click Here to see where the museum is located in Philadelphia.

Rebecca would like to extend a big thanks to one of her favorite podcasts, Sawbones, and one of the co-hosts, Dr. Sidnee McElroy, for inspiring her and being vital to her research. If you’re interested, you can find their episode covering the Mutter Museum Here or wherever you source your podcasts.

Our drink break this week is brought to you by the People Are Wild Podcast. Click on their logo to listen or you can find the show wherever you source your podcasts. We highly recommend this podcast if you’re interested in an ER nurse’s take on medical cases and events she has experienced.



The Beginning:

Thomas Dent Mutter was born on March 9, 1811 in Richmond, Virginia.

At age 8, he was orphaned and raised by a distant relative.

He attended Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, and eventually earned his MD from Penn (assuming this is Penn State) in 1831.

While in Europe, he studied under master surgeons, returning to Philadelphia after a year abroad to assist Dr. Thomas Harris.

This is the point he changed is name from Mutter to Mütter with the umlaut to sound… fancier.

He was ambidextrous, which helped him be a very skilled surgeon and he was known to be charming, easy to talk to, and had a great bedside manner

He was a strong advocate of the aseptic technique (which means he was an advocate of washing his hands!!!!)

Additionally, he was the first surgeon to use ethyl ether anesthesia in Philadelphia.

He was the professor of surgery from 1841 – 1856 with a forte in reconstructive surgery

He was specifically interested in plastic surgeries, especially surgeries that other surgeons didn’t see the point in performing (for example, women who were burn victims), and this was a big deal.

He became a pioneer of these types of techniques, being one of the early physicians to use flap surgery (commonly used to reconstruct the noses of those who suffered from extreme cases of Syphilis), and operating on people who have been medically defined as “monsters”.

This spurred him to start collecting unusual specimens specifically with the intent to use them to teach.

The Philadelphia College of Physicians was chosen by Dr Mutter to house his collection (which had about 1,700+ specimens at the time) as long as they had a fireproof building, a curator, promised to hold regular lectures, and to add to the museum at the time.

He died fairly young, being sick and in pain from gout and tuberculosis throughout his lifetime, encouraging him to create this collection to share knowledge and to help people

The Museum:

The museum is renowned for its medical oddities and anatomical specimens and was completed in 1863 at 13th & Locust, and later moved to 19 S. 22nd Street.

The museum has rotating exhibits such as photographic art and illustrations and only have about 13% of the available 20,000 specimens on display at one time (this does not included is the extensive medical library).

1,300 wet specimens (so, think specimens floating in jars of formaldehyde) that include everything from what’s naturally found in the human body to those that aren’t (such as cysts or tumors).

The Collection includes:

Specimen from John Wilkes Booth’s vertebra:

  • Was unable to confirm details on this other than they were cervical vertebra (middle of neck, so probably C3 area)
  • Unable to confirm if this is currently on display

Tallest skeleton on display in North America: The skeleton stands at 7’6”

While the museum is home to many full skeletons, the fully articulated skeleton of Harry Raymond Eastlack:

  • He suffered from FOP, or Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva
  • This extremely rare connective tissue disease, is severe, debilitating, has no known cure, and is the only medical condition where one organ system changes into another
  • This condition is caused by a mutation in the body’s repair mechanism, causing fibrous tissue (muscle, tendon, ligament) to become ossified either spontaneously or when damaged
  • Ossification is essentially bone formation
  • This causes the soft tissues to slowly be replaced by hard tissues in the body, such as bone
  • He donated his skeleton to the museum to assist in further understanding his medical condition

Jaw tumor of President Grover Cleveland (unable to confirm if it is currently on display)

Einstein’s brain

  • One of the two plates in the world where you can see slides / pieces of Einstein’s brain
  • Glass slides contain slices of brain sections 20 microns (.00005”) thick and are stained with cresyl violet (an oxazine dye used as a biological stain especially in histology.)
  • When the great physicist died, Thomas Harvey, MD, removed and autopsied Einstein’s brain without the family’s permission
  • He eventually got permission with the stipulation that the brain only be used for scientific research
  • Harvey kept the brain of one of the world’s greatest minds in a glass jar, sometimes in a cider box under a beer cooler
  • Harvey dissected the brain into 240 blocks and made 1,000 microscopic slides of the brain tissue. Dr. Harvey sent pieces of the brain to researchers all over the world.
  • A few notable things were discovered:
    • Einstein’s brain weighed less than the average adult male (2.7 lbs vs 3 lbs)
    • The inferior parietal region of his brain is 15% larger than average
    • Finally, Einstein’s brain lacks the degenerative changes that would have been expected to be seen in other 76 year olds

Soap Lady:

  • One of 3 known fainting spots
  • Was a woman whose body was exhumed in 1875 from a grave in Philadelphia. A fatty substance, called adipocere, that encased her remains
  • Adipocere: a grayish waxy substance formed by the decomposition of soft tissue in dead bodies subjected to moisture (adipose is just the storage of fat, adipocere is different)
  • While adipocere formation is not common, the alkaline, warm, and airless environment that she was buried in could have caused this unique formation of adipocere on the body
  • The adipocere is formed from the fatty tissues in the body and is essentially… soap. The body fills with soap, thus preserving the body.
  • Based on her teeth, it is assumed that she died either during her middle age or older
  • While originally believed that she died during the yellow fever epidemic of the 1790s, x-rays taken in 1879 showed buttons and and pins in her clothing that were not manufactured until the 1830s
  • While little is known about the Soap Lady, a set of digital and print x-rays performed in 2007, led by a team from the Quinnipec University, decreased the soap lady’s age from 40 or above down to her 20’s
  • Because of her condition, they can use her to perform clinical trials / cadaver validations on new imaging technology!

Dr. Joseph Hyrtl’s human skull collection:

  • One of 3 popular fainting spots
  • The museum added this collection in 1874
  • Viennese anatomise, Joseph Hyrtl (who lived from 1810 to 1894), started this collection as an attempt to counter the claims against phrenologists:
    • Phrenology: the study of the conformation of the skull based on the belief that it is indicative of mental faculties and character (from intelligence, to creativity, to, unfortunately, the differences between races)
  • 139 skulls are now in the possession of the Mutter Museum (unclear if this is his entire collection, if he withheld portions, or how much of the collection is on display)
  • Each skull is mounted on a stand that are built by hand, and many skulls are inscribed with comments about the person’s age, place of origin, and cause of death.
  • The Museum is working to clean, repair, and remount each of the skulls to preserve them for future generations of learners
  • Each skull has their own description of who they were (if known), how they died, and any other relevant information
  • Fun Fact: Each skull is uniquely mounted, not just because of the variation from skull to skull, but because the shifting of the building and foot traffic could caused harm to the specimens

Plaster cast and conjoined liver of “Siamese twins” Chang & Eng:

  • Chang and Eng were born in Siam (currently Thailand) in 1811 and were known as the original Siamese Twins
  • They spent a portion of their lives on exhibition tours
  • Afterwards, they settled in Mount Airy, NC
  • They married the Yates sisters and raised a total of 21 children
  • While they married siblings, they kept separate household, spending alternating weeks at their prospective farms
  • The twins died on January 17, 1874, with Cheng dying first, presumably of a cerebral clot
  • After receiving permission from the families, the twins were transported to The College of Physicians of Philadelphia where an autopsy was performed at the Mutter museum
  • The goal of the autopsy was to determine if the twins could have been separated during their lifetime
  • While the twins had their own sets of organs, where they were joined they shared a liver, meaning at that time that surgery would most likely have resulted in both twins bleeding out
  • They are now casted and on display in the museum
  • https://embryo.asu.edu/pages/chang-and-eng-bunker-1811-1874
  • http://memento.muttermuseum.org/detail/death-cast-of-chang-eng-bunker

Giant mega-colon:

  • One of 3 popular fainting spots
  • The original owner had hirschsprung disease, which happens when you don’t have proper nerves to portions of your colon, preventing things from being pushed along
  • This causes stool to sit and become stationary, causing the colon to slowly grow larger
  • This causes your belly to extend and causes constipation
  • The donor was born with this condition, and by the time he was a teenager he was having one bowel movement a month on average
  • He succumbed to the disease at 29 and his colon became a part of the museum
  • It had 40 lbs of feces, the largest part being 30in in diameter (it’s no longer filled with poop)

QUICK FIRE: Fun facts about the Mutter Museum, thanks to Mental Floss

  1. Adopt a skull: While each of Joseph Hyrtle’s skulls have their own fascinating backstory, for $200, a donor can pay for the cleaning, restoration, and remounting of a skull, after which a small plaque will be placed bearing the donor’s name
  2. Slices of Human Faces: Curator, Anna Ghody, created a series documenting some of the collections housed in the museum (that you can see on youtube!) You can check out more videos taken at the Museum by Clicking Here.
  3. Rib bones of a person with Rickets
  4. A Jar of pickled human skin: Apparently… it smells faintly of romano cheese…
  5. Hippopotamus Fat from the Zulus in South Africa: The Zulus in South Africa would use the fat of the Hippo to cure stomach aches
  6. Aphrodisiac made from Elephant’s tusk: (quotefrom mental floss) “The Zulus also contributed human aphrodisiacs to the Mütter Museum. Over a century ago, the Zulus collected a powdery substance called daga from the inside of an elephant tusk after the elephant had just been killed. They believed that by secretly pouring the powder into a woman’s drink or food, they would make the woman fall deeply in love with them.”
  7. World War I Hand Therapy Device: Exactly what it sounds like, would be used for physical therapy
  8. Bedbugs extracted from patient’s ears: SELF EXPLANATORY
  9. Section of Small Intestine: A section of small intestine was collected and placed in a jar for display when, in 1849, an outbreak of cholera in Philadelphia, killed 1012 people
  10. Human Feet: A jar of feet amputated from a patient suffering from diabetes. This was due to the patient no adequately maintaining the dieseasing, causing necrosis (death of the tissue)
  11. Book bound in human skin: (quoted from Mental Floss)
  • They have 5 books bound in human skin, 3 of which came from the same person
  • In the 1880s, a physician took skin from a woman’s thigh (who had Trichinella, a parasite you can softenfrombo boiled it in a chamber pot in the hospital, and used it to bind the 3 books.
  • The physician dedicated the book to her