Mutter Museum is not for the weak of stomach

REVIEW – I approached the Mutter Museum’s stately building with a jaunt in my step and a cocky self-confidence. Sure, I knew that the displays were full of preserved body parts and photographs of diseased

REVIEW – I approached the Mutter Museum’s stately building with a jaunt in my step and a cocky self-confidence. Sure, I knew that the displays were full of preserved body parts and photographs of diseased people, but I could handle it. I may not be able to handle exorcism movies, but I take pride in my lack of squeamishness.

I believed I was made of stronger stuff than those weak-stomached people who grow faint at the sight of any physical unpleasantness.

I was wrong. There is only so much smallpox that a person can take. If you really want to be scared this Halloween, don’t go to a horror film or to the Eastern State Penitentiary. Visit the Mutter Museum instead.

I expected the Mutter, one of Philadelphia’s lesser known museums, to be historically informative. It was, but it was terrifying and disgusting, too.

The opening exhibit, an examination of medicine from the time of Benjamin Franklin, is benign enough. It has plenty of information on bleeding and purging – the primary treatments of the period – interspersed with excerpts from Franklin’s writings. To whet one’s appetite for discomfort, there is an invention of Franklin’s, the “flexible catheter,” on display. But this was only the beginning.

The next display is one about infectious diseases. The ailments of Franklin’s time were abstract, but they hit close to home. The exhibit depicts the diseases that were hardest on Philadelphians – the 1793 yellow fever epidemic, the 1918 influenza epidemic and the 1976 Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Philadelphia. Visitors can contemplate AIDS statistics or assess a hand afflicted with moist gangrene.

Beyond this exhibit, one reaches the main attraction – the original museum with its many medical oddities. Walls are literally lined with diseased body parts.

For the forensically-inclined, there is a display on crime and medicine.

It used to be very difficult for people to be acquitted of crimes due to insanity. In the past, doctors believed that mental illness could be located only by physically examining the brain.

After a criminal died, doctors would look at his brain. If it appeared abnormal, they would declare the deceased insane. Too bad it was too late to prevent his execution. Abnormal brains are on display to illustrate the point.

The museum’s highlight was the wall of horrible facial diseases. Some of the head casts look like they belong in a bad horror movie from the ’80s, but are completely real. A few favorites: the “human horn” lady, who had an eight-inch curved appendage growing from the middle of her forehead, a man with elephantiasis and a lovely depiction of leprosy. Because, you know, I was always wondering what that looked like.

The exhibit also provides hope for the festively plump – they may have a greater chance at immortality than bony, starved people. The “soap lady” on display illustrates that the more fat there is on a person’s body, the more likely they are to be petrified, preserving the body far into the future. So, go ahead, eat that extra doughnut.

On the opposite end of the room, there are wall-to-wall skulls on display. Running the length of the inner railing is an exhibit on conjoined twins. These are not the frolicking brothers from Stuck On You. These twins are joined at the face . . . or worse.

There is a plaster cast of the most famous conjoined twins Chang and Eng. It was their nationality that inspired the term Siamese twins. They are actually Chinese, but, hey, Westerners have never been very good at ethnic accuracy.

For those of you who battle with your siblings, imagine being joined at the chest and facing your brother for your entire life. But Chang and Eng made it work. Each got married, one had 10 kids and the other 11 (imagine the logistics of that), and they alternated weeks living at each of their farms. So there’s hope for the rest of us. We only have to see our siblings on holidays.

Another feature not to miss: an enormously large human colon. I stared at it for 10 minutes. It looks like an elephant’s colon.

The man who possessed it had an abnormally large stomach to accommodate the body part, and he could go a whole month without ever passing a bowel movement. When he died, his colon contained forty pounds of feces. Forty pounds! No dashing out of class mid-lecture for him.

After perusing for a while longer, I looked at a preserved pig fetus and thought it was a deformed human fetus. When I understood my mistake, I realized that I might have spent too much time in the museum. Disease and deformity seemed normal. And that’s really scary.

Emilie Haertsch can be reached at

Visit the Mutter Museum any day between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., or on Halloween for extended hours. Bring your Owl Card for a discount. To check out upcoming events, visit

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