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Good to be alive: Medical museums in Philly and Chicago challenge the curious

The Mutter Museum began 155 years ago and includes the Hyrtl Skull Collection of 139 skulls, most identified with an individual's name, place and manner of death. | Photo courtesy of the Mutter Museum of The College of Surgeons of Philadelphia.

A wall of skulls. A black gangrenous hand. Many babies, pale as snow, slumped in glass jars. A wax arm showing the ravages of smallpox. A pair of desiccated children’s corpses, arms outstretched as if crucified. The skeletons of fetuses, some fantastically deformed — two tiny bodies sharing the same bulbous head — delicate as the bones of birds.

Yes, the Mutter Museum of The College of Surgeons of Philadelphia is … ah … challenging. But a few years ago I visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Barnes Foundation, the National Constitution Center and the Rodin Museum. I only had one morning free, and the Mutter is a short walk across the Schuylkill River from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where I was to spend the afternoon researching a story.

“This collection would not be able to be assembled today,” a guide told a tour group. “With the laws we have on the books to protect folks.”


No kidding. Nowadays, Albert Einstein would need to approve before his brain was removed from his body. But when he died in 1955, a pathologist just took it, cut it into segments and put it on slides. A selection is on display here.

The leap between medical tableau and circus side show is not very far, as evidenced by the giant’s skeleton posed next to the dwarf’s (their term). No Bearded Lady, but there is the “Soap Lady,” a saponified body dug up in 1875, the body fat turned into adipocere. Something you’d pay a quarter to see behind a tent flap. Or 50 cents not to see.

The International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago contains a variety of unusual objects, such as this collection of antique invalid feeders, in a display on nursing. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

While there are coherent exhibits, such as one on Civil War battlefield injuries, the permanent displays have a randomness that adds to the unease. On the right side of a cabinet are shrunken heads; on the left, kidneys and gall bladders. Why? What’s the organizing principle?

“The cases around the walls of this gallery are somewhat organized by part of the body (genitalia to the right, internal organs to the left, for example), although the gallery also evokes a 19th century ‘cabinet of curiosity,'” replied Gillian Ladley, the Mutter’s media and marketing manager. “Many of the cases and displays from the museum are authentic to the museum’s original opening – the museum opened in 1863, but in 1909 in this location – so that the museum itself is a historical artifact.”

Fair enough.

We have something similar in Chicago: The International Museum of Surgical Science, 1524 N. Lake Shore Drive. I hadn’t been there since 2002, so a refresher visit seemed in order. I headed over.

The IMSS is emptier, duller, without the chamber of horrors aspect in bloom at the Mutter — no human skin tattoos, no wax faces illustrating syphilis. Just a few skulls and two fish bowls filled with gallstones.

The International Museum of Surgical Science has a display on the ravages of polio before it was eradicated by vaccines, including this iron lung, used by those who could not breathe on their own. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

That said, it held my interest. I particularly appreciated the iron lung, a green steel cylinder that breathed for people paralyzed by polio. I wish I could round up a village of anti-vaxxers and march them past, the way Eisenhower forced German citizens to tour nearby concentration camps at the end of World War II. This is what your ignorance leads to.

Beside trephined skulls — skulls with holes cut in them, early surgery done by the Incas — is a fascinating display worth pointing out because it’s easy to miss: a looped color movie of Peruvian doctors reproducing the technique in 1953, using 2,000-year-old obsidian saws and bronze chisels, on loan from Peru’s National Museum of Archeology. The operation was a success.

The two museums left me with a pair of thoughts:

First, we should be very, very, grateful for medical advances over the past 100 years. To have a gruesome medical condition that some pill can clear up today, not know it, and instead die — or, worse, see your children die — had to be a horrible thing, and the Mutter is really a memorial to that horror, preserved in formaldehyde and lovingly displayed. Appreciate medicine’s advances, and fight the rise of ignorance as a social lubricant.

Second, it’s really, really good not to go straight into the jar, but to be permitted our brief span in the living world. To look up with feeling at the wall of skulls and not down blindly from it .