17 May 2013

Medicine & Folklore: "The Museum of Death" at Philadelphia's Mütter Museum

By Kathryn A. Kopple

On S. 22nd Street in Philadelphia, amid the handsome sandstone apartments and artisan coffee shops, stands an unassuming building with a sign in white and blue that reads:  The College of Physicians. “Just another medical school,” the causal passerby might think with a yawn.  Why bother stopping? Far more eye-fetching monuments beckon around the corner.  The Greek Revival magnificence of Philadelphia’s Museum of Art comes to mind, or the baroque splendor of City Hall.  Nothing about The College of Physicians makes much of an impression.   Not counting The Forum, a triple X movie theatre a block or two away, it is located in a sedate residential neighborhood; and then there is its name—so straightforward and institutional sounding.   From the outside, The College of Physicians holds all the promise of a doctor’s waiting room:  wall-to-wall carpeting, cheap water-color prints, piles of dog-eared magazines, and the nose-wrinkling and pervasive odor of disinfectant.  You could easily imagine one of Baudelaire’s urban strollers walking past the place without a second glance; in search of more exquisite sights and sounds, the flâneur would press on in the direction of Rittenhouse Square.  No doubt, he would laugh in disbelief when told that he had just snubbed one of the world’s most unique museums, a collection that boasts over “20,000 unforgettable objects”—many of them human remains.
The initiated, however, know better:  those who have made the trip to Philadelphia’s famous anatomical institute, coming by train or on foot, and have climbed the worn steps leading to the college; those who have patiently waited in line to pay the $10.00 admission fee, where visitors exchange nervous glances—the marble foyer echoing with excited voices.  I confess that, as I waited among them, I wondered if it wasn’t too late to change my mind.  Just turn around and walk away.  Did I really need to know what lay beyond the vestibule furnished with reddish brown leather couches and dark oil paintings of scientists and doctors?  What about the name of the museum’s founder, Thomas Mütter, whose German appellation is carved in heavy black letters above the narrow entrance to the gallery? 
In 1858, Thomas Dent Mütter, Professor of Surgery at Jefferson Medical College, bequeathed his personal collection of anatomic and forensic materials to The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.  Over the years, the Mütter has garnered an obscure if sensational reputation.  Locals refer to it as “the museum of death.” Once inside, the Mütter presents the viewer with a strange series of paradoxes:  the mahogany repose of a gentleman’s library, where atrocities of every possible type are catalogued and exhibited; an institute devoted to medical progress that offers one freakish spectacle after the other.  On public display is a fantastically enlarged colon, jars of fetuses in every stage of development preserved in formaldehyde, dozens of skulls and skeletons, a fully preserved corpse known as “the Soap Lady,” and numerous shrunken heads.  To call the collection “unforgettable” is an understatement.  The museum will transform your ideas of what it means to be human.  If it doesn’t, you might want to check your pulse.  After leaving the Mütter, you will realize that the human body is capable of anything.  Physicians refer to the body in terms of “systems” and “structures” but they do not come close to describing the chaos that ensues when, say, a human head begins to grow horns or an organ is found to contain tumors with teeth and hair.  It is impossible to look upon this wild proliferation without awe and terror.  Not surprisingly, the men and women who have spent their lives working in close proximity to disease and death exhibit a fascination with the macabre that exceeds the purely clinical demeanor required of the scientist.  However disturbing, the Mütter houses numerous “mementoes,” among them physicians’ notebooks and instrument cases bound in human skin.
The tanning of human leather represents what Lisa Rosner might refer to as the dark side of the Enlightenment.  A professor at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, Rosner is the author of The Anatomy Murders, which can be purchased at museum’s gift shop.  In her acknowledgements, she cites the support of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and reading her book you sense that she has spent long hours there and disapproves of many of its traditions and practices.  While her book focuses on Burke and Hare, two of the 19th century’s most notorious murders, Rosner devotes many pages to “the man of science who abetted them in their crimes.”  Over a period of twelve months, Burke and Hare murdered sixteen people—three men, twelve women, and one child—and delivered the corpses to Dr. Robert Knox.  Knox paid his suppliers well and asked no questions.  Body snatchers had long satisfied the anatomists’ need for subjects by robbing graves. Burke and Hare took the unfortunate business a step further by suffocating their victims and then selling the corpses for profit. 
Rosner is a conscientious researcher.  Her book represents heavy-going, although you can’t help but be impressed by her persistence and thoroughness.  She wants the reader to understand the tragedy of the Edinburgh murders and to underscore the fact that medical progress owes a tremendous debt to the poor and disenfranchised.  Her prose can’t compete with masterpieces like Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  She is a historian, not a novelist.  Nor does her tendency to cite her sources at length and inject the book with large doses of period language succeed in enlivening her style.  On the other hand, Rosner does an excellent job of raising questions that many of us today, benefitting from medical horrors past and present, would simply rather not ask. 

Kathryn A.Kopple is the author of Little Velásquez, a novel set in 15th century Spain.