Body of work: Einstein's brain and other medical history at Philadelphia museum

  • The skeleton of a 22- to 24-year-old man of approximately 7 foot, 6 inches tall, center, is on display at the Mutter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The skeleton of a 22- to 24-year-old man of approximately 7 foot,… (Harry Fisher, MCT )
March 28, 2013|By Diane W. Stoneback, Tribune Newspapers

PHILADELPHIA — — Mutter Museum may leave you shocked and horrified or amazed and fascinated. Either way, its collections of bones, bodies, body parts, plus tumors and other terrors, are unforgettable.

The nation's finest and oldest medical museum — celebrating its 150th anniversary this month — bills itself as "disturbingly informative," and that is absolutely true. Specimens lining its wood-and-glass display cases reveal the effects of epidemics and diseases on the body, as well as an amazing array of human curiosities and anomalies.

One of its newest and most famous attractions is the brain of legendary German physicist Albert Einstein. Truth be told, the museum just owns pieces of it — 46, to be exact — mounted on a set of microscope slides. But it's quite a specimen and just one of five sets known to be in existence.

The Mutter is the repository for a who's who of body parts, including skin samples collected during President James A Garfield's autopsy, a cancerous tumor removed from President Grover Cleveland's jaw and the 4th and 5th vertebrae from President Abraham Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

The museum, on two stories of the stately College of Physicians of Philadelphia building, is a place where forensic pathologists, like Fox TV's Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan, would love to hang out. Its collection of 139 human skulls, numerous skeletons, plus additional dried bodies and body parts would provide a wealth of props for a ghoulish Halloween party or a very scary night at the museum.

"We don't sugarcoat or glorify anything," says curator Anna Dhody. "We ask visitors to come with open minds and focus on the subjects that appeal to them. We provide the diagnostic interpretations for the items they see in our displays.

"Some visitors tell us they feel nauseated by what they've seen, but that's OK. It's how they feel. Others tell us our specimens make them grateful to be born in the 20th century, with its antiseptics, antibiotics and anesthesia. Others say they've gotten a greater understanding of what it is to be human."

Some treasures within the collection once were sideshow stars. Others could have been.

Chang and Eng, twins born in Siam, toured the world and inspired the term "Siamese twins" for conjoined twins. The pair, who married sisters and fathered 21 children, are stars of this category. A plaster death cast of their conjoined torsos is displayed, along with the preserved liver they shared.

The Wind Bag or Balloon Man, who also profited from putting himself on display, had a horribly distended abdomen, which you can see in a hospital photo taken shortly before his death from constipation. On display is his huge and grotesquely swollen bowel — nearly nine feet long and measuring from 10 to 30 inches in circumference. He suffered from a congenital condition that could have been surgically corrected today.

Additional weird wonders: the mysterious "Soap Woman," whose body turned into a soaplike substance called adipocere or "grave wax"; a wax cast of a Parisian woman's head, showing the 10-inch horn that grew from her forehead; and an ovarian cyst weighing 70 pounds.

In the believe-it-or-not category: Some 19th-century physicians "remembered" deceased patients by having their skin turned into leather for binding books and making wallets and leather cases for medical tools.

The museum has interactive elements: Visitors can try "reading the dead" using prompts from the museum's cellphone tour to examine six skeletons for clues about their sex, age, race and maladies.

The museum, founded in 1858 by Dr. Thomas Dent Mutter and opened in 1863, originally focused on schooling doctors and improving the education of medical students who were not permitted to assist with patients or surgeries. It opened with 1,300 specimens Mutter collected to provide hands-on experiences for his students, but the collection has grown to more than 25,000 objects.

"Our educational mission has never changed, but our demographics have," says Dhody. "The majority of today's visitors do not have medical backgrounds, although we still see medical students and those in health-care-related fields. … Everyone has become more interested and fascinated by the human body."

The number of visitors has risen to an all-time high of more than 131,000 annually and figures are expected to climb even higher as word continues to spread about the museum's offbeat contents. The gift of the Einstein brain slides in 2011 drew journalists from around the world. "I believe we're the only place where people can see the actual samples," Dhody says.

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