By: Kara Annett
Some of the skulls at the Mütter Museum. Source.
As we bid goodbye to October, I’m filled with a sense of dread knowing it won’t be long before stores start blasting Mariah Carey and Michael Bublé again and reminding us how it’s the most wonderful time of the year. To me, Halloween is the most wonderful time of the year and instead of hanging stockings by the chimney with care and visions of sugar plum fairies dancing in my head, I’m wondering how much longer I can get away with playing “The Monster Mash” and keeping the paper skeleton on my door. It’s no surprise then that I decided to write about one of the eeriest museum collections in the world; that’s right, today we’re delving into the marvellously macabre collections of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.
Founded in 1858 by Thomas Dent Mütter, the original purpose of the museum was to improve and expand upon medical education. The original collection of 1,700 objects has grown to over 25,000 and includes oddities such as sections of Albert Einstein’s brain and the unfortunately named Soap Lady, a poor woman whose body developed a fatty covering following burial (I don’t recommend looking up pictures of her after midnight because it definitely does not look like soap). Fellow bookworms might be interested in the world’s largest collection of anthropodermic bibliopegy, or books bound in human skin (this one is safe to Google, I promise). What’s most iconic, however, is their vast collection of skulls and skeletons.
A glimpse at just some of the skulls. Source. The Hyrtl Skull Collection came into the museum’s possession in 1874 through Dr. Joseph Hyrtl, a Viennese physician who studied 139 skulls to disprove phrenology, a popular theory at the time that stated a person’s intelligence, race, and personality could be determined by the shape and size of their skull. Hyrtl documented his findings on the sides of the skulls and his subjects mainly comprised of the poor and criminals from all over the world. Amongst those on display in the cabinet are Andrew Sokoloff, a Russian man who died of self-inflicted castration, and Francisa Seycora, a famous Viennese prostitute who died at 19 from meningitis. The skulls themselves are just as varied as the people they came from, with no two looking the same. Some have bullet holes, others are partially decayed, and absolutely none of them resemble the perfectly clean and symmetrical skull that Halloween aisles proudly display. As easy as it is to get caught up in the morbid fascination of it all, these were once real people just like you and me.
The skeleton of conjoined twins. Source. While it’s easy to dismiss the Mütter’s collection as morbid, it served an important purpose: to improve medical education. The museum is now run by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, who use the acquisitions for research purposes. Carol Orzel passed away in 2018 from Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva, a rare disease that causes tissue to turn to bone. She donated her skeleton for the purpose of bringing public awareness to the disease and in hopes of researchers eventually developing a cure. Carol is displayed next to Harry Eastlack, who also had FOP and requested his body be used for research purposes. Harry’s case is still the most well-known when it comes to FOP and his body is still referred to in research. It was because of his skeleton that scientists were able to determine which gene is responsible for FOP, leading to ongoing trials for potential cures.
The skeleton of Harry Eastlack. Source. Though not every specimen in the Mütter is used to advance current medical research, it is impossible to deny the importance of this unique and sometimes disturbing collection. It’s easy to dismiss the museum as a cabinet of curiosities, but in reality, the Mütter has led to significant contributions in the medical field. Maybe I’ll keep the skeleton hanging on the door for just a bit longer.
A close-up of one of Hyrtl's skulls. Source