Fright at the Museum: The Story Behind the Mütter Museum

The legacy of charismatic 19th-century surgeon Thomas Dent Mütter, provides a window into a lost world of medical practice and education through medical oddities like the “horned” lady, Grover Cleveland’s tumor and slices of Albert Einstein’s brain.

At the corner of 22nd and Ludlow streets sits the elegant red-brick structure that houses The College of Physicians, the oldest medical society in the country. At first glance, this staid institution seems an unlikely home for one of Philadelphia’s best-loved tourist destinations. But within the opulent Beaux Arts interior sits one of the most peculiar and enthralling exhibits of any museum in the world.

Shrunken heads, deformed fetuses, rows upon rows of skulls, a body which has turned into soapy substance: these are just a few of the disturbing and macabre items on display at The Mutter Museum (19 S. 22nd St., Philadelphia, PA, 215.560.8564) in Philadelphia. Visitors today may be inclined to see these intriguing specimens as mere medical oddities. But this collection, the legacy of a charismatic 19th-century surgeon and professor, provides a window into a lost world of medical practice and education.

The Mütter Museum

Born in Richmond, Virginia in 1811, Thomas Dent Mutter lost his brother, mother, father, and guardian grandmother to illness by the time he was seven. As a sickly orphan, Mutter developed an interest in medicine, enrolling in the University of Pennsylvania medical school at age 17.

After graduating from Penn, young Mutter followed the path of many American doctors of the time and continued his education among the surgeons of Paris. There he learned the innovative techniques of les operations plastiques (plastic surgery): cosmetic procedures to repair skin and tissue damaged by burns, tumors, or congenital defects.

In Paris, Mutter obtained an item since seen by thousands of museum-goers: a wax head-cast of a “horned” lady, a woman with a thick brown protrusion extending from her forehead to below her chin. It was the first of many wax models, skeletons, and preserved body parts he would collect over the next few decades.

On returning to Philadelphia, Mütter (as he now styled himself, adding an umlaut to appear more European) became a prominent plastic surgeon. He was soon named chair of surgery at Jefferson Medical College, the city’s second oldest medical school (now Thomas Jefferson University). There, he used his growing collection as a teaching tool to demonstrate the varied maladies that could affect the human body. “He wanted a well-rounded collection,” says Robert Hicks, director of The Mütter Museum. “One that reflected what a physician might see in practice.”

At Jefferson, Mütter built a reputation as a flamboyant and popular lecturer, a precocious young doctor at the forefront of a wave of new surgical techniques. He was an early adopter of anesthesia and sterilization, developments that made operations significantly less painful and risky. A ticket to his public surgeries was a hot commodity, and attendees praised his teaching skills and the specimens, which he wove into his lectures “so as to impress yet not confuse.”

The later years of Mütter’s life were plagued by illness so the physician sought a permanent home for his extensive holdings. In 1858, a few months before he died at the age of 47, Mütter signed an Article of Agreement transferring his holdings to The College of Physicians.

When the museum opened in 1863, the collection numbered about 1,700 items, of which more than 1,300 survive. Among them are the preserved swollen hand of a gout sufferer, the aforementioned “horned” lady, and the skeleton of a female frighteningly malformed by years of wearing restrictive corsets.

In 1874, the museum obtained the death cast and fused liver of conjoined brothers Chang and Eng, remembered in the name “Siamese Twins.” That same year, it purchased a set of 139 skulls from Austrian physician Joseph Hyrtl. A body from the early 1800s of a woman turned into a soap-like substance called adipocere made its way to the museum in 1875. Other items donated to The Mütter Museum in the 1800s continue to amaze visitors today: an eight-foot, four-inch 40-pound colon from a man who died of constipation; the tumor removed from President Grover Cleveland’s jaw; shrunken heads from the Shuar people of South America.

The Mütter Museum 

The collection now contains more than 25,000 objects and continues to grow, most recently with the acquisition of slices of Albert Einstein’s brain. But the museum retains a distinctly Victorian feel. “The 19th-century weirdosity is part of the appeal,” says Hicks. Large wooden display cabinets and fading text labels make it seem almost like a museum of a museum from years past.

Until late in the 20th century, the exhibits lay hidden behind The College of Physicians imposing walls and cast iron gates. Doctors from across the region flocked to the society to peruse the latest medical journals or borrow a specimen for analysis, but public visitors were few and far between.

The Mütter Museum

This situation began to change in the early 1990s, during the tenure of energetic museum director Gretchen Worden. In appearances on the “Late Show with David Letterman” and other national media, Worden brought the unique collections into the public consciousness. By the time of her death in 2004, the museum saw over 60,000 visitors a year.

This number has since more than doubled. It is a place guaranteed to start conversation. The Mütter Museum has been called the most popular first-date spot in the city. Bride Magazine named it among the 50 best wedding venues in the nation. 

But director Hicks hopes visitors experience it as more than just an array of weird objects. “I don’t want to be known as the oddity museum,” he says. “It’s a place where you can be curious in a public and safe way about how the body works.”

It’s a far cry from his original vision of a set of teaching tools, but the one-of-a-kind curiosities Mütter assembled so many years ago continue to stimulate and inform to this day. “It’s not the teaching tool Dr. Mütter intended,” says George Wohlreich, MD, president of The College of Physicians. “But the museum still teaches us about ourselves: It shows us our common humanity.”