From: email@example.com (Steve Kreckman)
The following article about my favorite museum appeared in the Nov. 22
issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer:
MESMERIZING IMAGES BORN OUT OF DEATH AND DEFORMITY
(Just too gross? Not for this museum.)
It's hard to think of a photograph of facial warts as art, let alone imagining
it hanging on someone's wall.
Perhaprs this is the genius of Gretchen Worden.
She is curator of the Mutter Museum, home to some of the most grotesque
oddities known to medical science. About 7,00 people find their way to
her exhibits each year. They come to linger over the jars of preserved
remains and wax models that present an exotic, up-close look at
disease, deformity, and death.
| Picture of face floating in jar|
| of formaldehyde goes here |
The experience for many is both spellbinding and repulsive, and therein
lies a truth that Worden has known for some time: There is a need to
try to know the unknowable. These exhibits, silent testaments to human
suffering, demonstrate this need to the extreme.
Now the once-obscure museum, in the ornately marbled and wood-paneled
College of Physicians at 19 S. 22nd St., expects more visitors than
ever before. A burst of publicity has accompanied ist publication of a
$14.95 calender, illustrated with artistic photographs that depict some
of its exhibits.
To their surprise, museum officials sold out the 3,500 calenders faster
than a nonmedical person can say cephalothoracopagus (conjoined twins
fused at the head and chest); talipes calcaneovarus (a fetal skeleton
with club feet); or anaencephalic skeleton with complete spina bifida
(rudimentary brain development with congenital cleft of the vertabrae).
Three such specimens, arranged and photographed in stark black and
white with a brilliant platinum finish by the New york team of Gwen
Akin and Allan Ludwig, are displayed as the illustration in the
calender's month of February. In addition to holidays such as
President's Day, Ash Wednesday, and Valentine's Day the calender
contains memorable dates in the history of medicine.
For example, the calender notes that Feb. 12, lincoln's Birthday, is
also the birthday of Rene Laennec, "inventor of the stethoscope, born
"Over the years, a number of photographers have come here, drawn by the
unusual nature of the exhibits, and taken pictures that have the
quality of high art," says Worden, who has worked to provide a
historical and personal context's for many of the museum's exhibits.
Now she's making plans for another calender next year.
The collage's museum got its first big boost, and its name, when Dr.
Thomas Dent Mutter donated his entire collection of anatomical and
pathological specimens to the college in 1858, upon his retirement as
one of the leading teachers of surgery of his time.
Oil paintings, wax and papier-mache models, and bones were among the
exhibits he had used as teaching tools. Also in the museum are Chief
Justice John Marshall's bladder stones; a tumor removed from President
Cleveland's mouth; and the compressed rib cage of a woman who wore her
corset too tight.
One of the most popular exhibits is the lifelike wax head of a woman
who had a six-inch horn growing out from her forehead; another is Dr.
Joseph Hyrtl's collection of 139 skulls from 19th- century Europe.
The original "Siamese twins'" Chang and Eng, were autopsied here in
1874, and a plaster cast prepared upon their death at age 63, shows
their torsos joined at the breast-bones. Nearby, the liver they shared
is preserved in a jar.
Inside another antique glass showcase, "The Soap Lady" lies in repose,
her mouth open in what appears to be a yawning smile. This 198-year-old
cadaver was once an obese woman whose fat has decomposed into a
soap-like substance over years.
The place so facinated Laura Lindgren, a New York freelance book
producer, that she became obsessed with the idea of publishing
something about the museum after discovering it in 1986. Her interest
converged with Worden's, and about two years ago they began work on the
Lindgren got her brother, Scott, a Los Angeles photographer and
film-maker, involved in the project. He juxtaposed a pair of
165-year-old French-style forceps with female pelvic bones in a still
life, as if he were photographing a vase of flowers or a basket of
On Wednesday, Carla DuPriest, 17, was cutting classes at the High
School of Creative and Performing Arts to check out the museum's
offering's, on the recommendation of a friend.
"I figure I'd tell my teacher I stayed out to see _Malcolm X_," she
said. "But I can see _Malcolm X_ anytime."
She stood transfigured at the sight of "The Soap Lady." "It's gross,"
she said. "You don't see dead people like that every day. But there's
something fascinating about it. I can't really explain it."
The tension between attraction and repulsion is what drew photographers
Akin and Ludwig to the museum in 1985.They didn't leave before shooting
30 exhibits, and the photograps toured museums all over the world in an
exhibition of their work. One of the pictures show a serene human
face, sliced off the head of a woman and preserved in formaldehyde like
a mask, which was used to educate medical students early in the century.
"You're fascinated with it, this monstrous thing. You either look at it
or turn your eyes away," Ludwig said. "You wonder how nature could make
these hideous things, then you realize nature is both ugly and
The Warren museum at Harvard Medical School. It's full
of tasteless items, including:
A *huge* hairball, taken from the stomach of some poor slob who
worked with human hair (wigmaker, or something). It's
stomach-shaped, and twice as big as you think a stomach is.
A set of dozens of needles that were taken from the body of a
lunatic. They're nice and rusty.
Gruesome medical equipment of yesteryear.
Lots of fun skulls: indian with embedded flint arrowhead,
hydrocephalic (enormously swollen cranium), trephined
("therapeutic" holes cut in the skull of living people).
A nice crumbly mummy from South America.
Pictures of people with cool diseases like elephantitis.
A preserved anencephalic (brainless) newborn. Totally flat-headed.
A fetus from an ectopic pregnancy, that had been in this woman
for *eight* years, during which time she had another successful
A nifty skeleton of siamese twin newborns, joined at the crotch (legs
splayed all over the place).
A preserved "siren" newborn: "legs" fused together into this funny
A cast of a cyclops newborn. Yep, one eye in the middle of the
But the top prize had to go to one newborn skeleton: siamese
twins with one set of legs, two torsos, one hydrocephalic head
and one anencephalic head! Can you imagine the delight the
obstetrician must have taken in informing the mother after that
delivery? "Well, M'am, the good news is that you have twins.
The bad news is that there weren't enough legs to go around,
and the jerk on the right hogged all the brains!"
Anyway, I'd recommend a visit to anyone in the area. Sadly, the museum
is much smaller than it used to be. I remember going as a little kid
and seeing lots more stuff (two-headed goat skeletons, the "crowbar