June 1, 2011

Philadelphia’s freaky medical museum

Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum should come with a warning: do not visit if you are freaked out by dead people and their pickled parts.

But if distended bowels, shrunken heads and the world’s largest bowel is your thing, then a visit to Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum (pronounced Mooter) is a must.

Officially called the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, it was founded in 1787 and is the oldest medical facility in the country. It’s still used today for medical research and the museum houses creepy body parts, diseases and dead people who have confounded the doctors and who now lie here for the scientists to pore over.

 

What to look out for:

The preserved soap lady has confounded the medical world and I’m sorry, but she is really revolting. One could have nightmares for weeks after looking at her mummified face. She basically died in her bed and the heat was such that her body fat coagulated. She’s there, lying in all her glory, preserved her toothless mouth open. The original cause of death, her age and even the year she died is still being examined today.

I was morbidly fascinated by an intriguing display of South American shrunken heads. I’d never heard of this before, but apparently when marauding tribes would kill their enemies, they would decapitate them and take the heads home to create shrunken trophies. I Googled the procedure and again, one must have a cast-iron mind not to be effected. Suffice to say, the skin is peeled back and the skulls removed, then over the next week the head is boiled and sculpted and eventually hardened to create a mini-head necklace to be worn by the victor.

President Abraham Lincoln’s murder at the Ford Theatre in Washington DC is described in minute detail and John Wilkes Booth (the gunman who snuck into the president’s box and shot him at point blank range in the head) has a piece of neck tissue in a jar sitting here.

Mutter Museum

This mega colon was removed from a 29-year old man. It held 40 pounds of poo!

An enormous preserved bowel is sitting in a glass cabinet. The poor man who owned it was so constipated – only going once a month – that his bowel became bigger than an elephant trunk wrapped around inside his tummy. The autopsy revealed 18 kilos of fecal matter packed inside. An encouragement for eating prunes, if ever I saw one. You may be pleased to know that only the stretched lining is preserved and it is here stuffed with straw.

Credit: George Widman

A plaster cast of the world’s first Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, is here. They were born in 1811 in Siam (now Thailand) of Chinese parents and later moved to the States. Their autopsy was carried out at the Mutter and it turned out they were joined by their livers but could have easily been separated as they were independently complete. Instead they walked with their arms slung over each other’s shoulders, and were toured around as freaks as children. When they moved to North Carolina they became farmers, bought slaves, married sisters and had 10 and 11 kids respectively. The mind boggles.

But 21 kids and four adults, unsurprisingly, didn’t get along too well under the same roof, so they had separate houses, ran separate farms and spent week about staying at each place. Chang contracted pneumonia and died suddenly in his sleep in 1874 aged 63. Eng woke to find his brother dead and a doctor was called to perform an emergency separation, but he refused and died three hours later. Their fused liver is on display here as is a plaster cast of their bodies.

Walk slowly past the famous Hyrtl skull collection, many with axe cuts and musket holes. Then turn around and look at the cabinet of human skin tanned into leather – and keep your eye out for the human wallet.

Then when you’re done head out into the Philadelphia sunshine and grab yourself a bite to eat. If you can.

 

Check out the Mutter Museum >>>

About Megan Singleton

Megan

Megan Singleton is a travel writer, blogger and radio correspondent. She's been gallivanting around the world telling stories for the last 16 years and has her suitcase always half packed (or half un-packed!) Follow along on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for monthly newsletters if you want to keep up with the journey!

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