Wednesday, March 28, 2018

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

Mutter Museum of The College of Physicians 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 I had been to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Barnes Foundation, the Museum of the Constitution 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 have to agree to have his brain removed from his body. But when he died in 1955, somebody just took it, cut into segments and put on slides, a collection of which are on display at the Mutter.
International Museum of Surgical Science, Chicago
     The gap between a medical display and a circus side show is not very wide, as evidence by the giant skeleton posed next to the dwarf's (their term). No Bearded Lady, but there is the "Soap Lady," a saponified body dug up in Philadelphia in 1875, the body fat turned into adipocere. It was something you'd pay a quarter to see behind a tent, as well as the 70-pound ovarian cyst. Or 50 cents not to see.
     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.
     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.







17 comments:

  1. Next time you're in D.C., suggest you visit the National Museum of Health. It's gone through several iterations since its founding as the Army Medical Museum in 1862, known for its display of the leg bone of Union Gen. Sickles, shattered during the Battle of Gettysburg. The museum, at least the last time I visited it, was not for the faint of heart. http://www.medicalmuseum.mil/index.cfm?p=about.index

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  2. Love these forays into weirdness.

    john

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  3. I find myself curious about the patient in the 1953 reenactment of Incan surgical technique. Not a living person, I hope?

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    1. You betcha. A 31-year-old man who had a blood clot pressing on his brain. The surgery was a success.

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  4. For those enamored of such displays, the Henterian Museum in London't Royal College of surgeons is worth a visit.

    Tom

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  5. This is why I could never be a doctor or any other kind of health care professional. The "ick factor" is too strong for me.

    Great line about anti-vaxxers, BTW.

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  6. If you ever get back to Cleveland, I highly recommend the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum, directly across the street from Severance Hall, the home of the Cleveland Orchestra. The history of contraception in America, changing birth practices, doctors' offices and surgical instruments of different eras, fighting diabetes and smallpox, advancements in forensics, the history of microscopes...it's all there and it's free. A great way to spend an afternoon. Best of all, the Cleveland Museum of Art, one of the world's finest, is a short walk down the street...and a lovely way to clear your head of some of the things you've just seen.

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  7. Nice. Click on "to continue reading" and be directed to the SUN*Times page, which has a large black directory box, blocking most of your column. Luckily I subscribe to the print, so needed to go find it to finish the column. Hope this is a one time occurrence. Very annoying....

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    1. @Joe H. -- That's odd, I had no problem seeing the complete column. I'm currently out of town and haven't yet seen the printed paper, but the new digital version is much improved IMO.

      SandyK

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  8. Very poetic, Neil.

    I wonder, how long did people live in iron lungs?

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    1. Google it. There are still people living in them who contracted polio in the 50s.

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  9. What are you doing in Phillie?

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  10. Not quite the worst place to be in the view of W.C. Fields.

    Tom

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  11. I like the new look of the paper and won't miss the USA today section but they forgot the table of contents in the front.

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  12. This was very interesting, I would really like to visit the Mutter someday. Just one thing, are you saying that the Incas developed trephaning? I thought that dated back to Neolithic times.

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  13. My father-in-law was in one for the best part of a year in 1954. It eventually killed him in 1979 at the age of 55, polio shortened many lifespans. If he knew about his antivaxxer grandson, he'd have a complete fit. As do I.

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