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11 Weird (But Awesome) Things at the Mütter Museum

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The Mütter Museum was founded in 1858, when Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter donated a collection of medical anomalies, anatomical and pathological specimens, and bizarre medical instruments to the museum. Its original purpose was to continue medical education and research in the heart of Philadelphia. From the conjoined livers from a pair of Siamese twins to slides of Albert Einstein’s brain, the Mütter Museum houses dozens of strange artifacts from medical history. Here are 11 of our favorites.

1. Adopt a Skull

One of the museum’s most popular exhibits is a display of 139 skulls collected by Viennese anatomist Joseph Hyrtl in the 1800s. Dead men may tell no tales, but each of these skulls conveys a unique and interesting story. One skull belonged to a famous tightrope walker who fell and broke his neck. Another skull belonged to a Finnish sailor who died of gunshot wounds. The museum recently began an initiative to encourage visitors to adopt a skull. For $200, the donor pays for the cleaning, restoration, and remounting of the skull, which is then placed next to a small plaque bearing the donor’s name.

2. Slice of a Human Face

The curator of the Mütter Museum, Anna Dhody, created a series of YouTube videos documenting some of the items in the museum’s collections. In this video, she shows us a bilateral cross-section of the human face. Dr. Matthew Cryer, a physician and dentist who was around during the early 1900s, prepared the slice to study the development of oral and sinus cavity formation and development. The museum has at least 400 other similar samples in its collection.

3. Rib Bones of a Person with Rickets

The museum also owns pieces of rib bones that were from a person with rickets. Rickets is a disease caused by a deficiency in vitamin D and results in the softened bones.

4. Jar of Picked Human Skin

One of the stranger artifacts in the museum is a jar of picked human skin. So… what does a jar of picked human skin smell like? According to Dr. Robert Hicks, the director of the museum, a jar of picked human skin smells faintly like Romano cheese.

5. Hippopotamus Fat from the Zulus in South Africa

Most of us have at least one crazy aunt in our family who swears by alternative medicine. But have you ever heard of hippopotamus fat? According to Dr. Hicks, the Zulus in South Africa used hippo fat to cure stomachaches. They also used it to create “chemistry” between animals to encourage them to mate.

6. Aphrodisiac Made From Elephant’s Tusk

The Zulus also contributed human aphrodisiacs to the Mütter Museum. Over a century ago, the Zulus collected a powdery substance called daga from the inside of an elephant tusk after the elephant had just been killed. They believed that by secretly pouring the powder into a woman’s drink or food, they would make the woman fall deeply in love with them.

7. World War I Hand Therapy Device

Today’s medical technology has come a long way since the devices used at the beginning of the 20th century. Back in World War I, doctors used a primitive wooden device for hand therapy. When soldiers' hands and fingers were injured during war, they would use the machine to stretch their muscles and increase circulation.

8. Bedbugs Extracted From a Patient’s Ear

If you live in a big city, you have probably heard of the dreaded bedbugs – blood-sucking insects that stow away in clothes, bedding, or even on the human body. At the Mütter Museum, they have a jar of bedbugs that were extracted from a patient’s ear.

9. Section of Small Intestine

In 1849, the city of Philadelphia experienced an outbreak of cholera, and the incident killed 1012 people. A section of the small intestine from one of these people was collected and placed in a jar to be studied and put on display.

10. Human Feet

One of the weirder collections of the Mütter Museum is its jar of amputated feet. The feet were taken from a patient suffering from diabetes. The patient, who did not adequately maintain the disease, suffered from necrosis—the death of body tissue.

11. Book Bound in Human Skin

The museum also features a book written in the 1700s that explains how women become pregnant and what happens during the different stages of pregnancy. And while an 18th century explanation of pregnancy is probably pretty interesting, that’s not the weirdest thing about this book. In the 1880s, a physician took skin from a woman’s thigh, boiled it in a chamber pot in the hospital, and used it to bind the book.

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Jean-Philippe Ksiazek, Getty Images
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Uncover 'Little Pompeii' Buried Beneath Ash in France
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Jean-Philippe Ksiazek, Getty Images

Newly uncovered ruins in France are drawing comparisons to one of the most famous archaeological sites of all time. Like Pompeii, the ancient Roman neighborhood discovered beneath the town of Vienne has been preserved beneath a layer of ash for nearly 2000 years, The Guardian reports.

Ground had just been broken on a 75,000-square-foot housing complex in Vienne, which is south of Lyon, when the discovery was made. After excavating the site, archaeologists saw it contained the remains of an entire district of a Roman village last inhabited during the 1st century CE. A series of fires appears to have swept through the town, driving out residents and destroying buildings. Whatever structures and objects survived the initial blaze were entombed in a protective coating of ash until they were brought to light earlier this year.

Archaeologist excavating ruins in Vienne, France.
Jean-Philippe Ksiazek, Getty Images

Among the debris, archaeologists came across the ruins of a home they believe once belonged to a wealthy merchant. The roof, balcony, and first floor have all crumbled away, but a tiled floor illustrated with mythological characters remains. Another mosaic they unearthed depicts Thalia, the muse of comedy, being kidnapped by Pan, the god of satyrs. In a different part of the site, a public building (possibly a school of philosophy) houses a fountain complete with a statue of Hercules. 

Archaeologist excavating ruins in Vienne, France.
Jean-Philippe Ksiazek, Getty Images

When it was overtaken by Rome in 47 BCE, Vienne became a communication center for the empire. Many impressive structures, including an 11,000-seat theater, are left over from the era, but the discovery of "little Pompeii" is in a category all its own. Lead archaeologist on the dig Benjamin Clement told The Guardian that it's "the most exceptional excavation of a Roman site in 40 or 50 years."

Archaeologists have been excavating the site since April and will have until the end of the year to recover the rest of the relics. Many of the pieces that have already been collected will be restored with plans to display them in Vienne's museum of Gallo-Roman civilization in 2019.

Archaeologist excavating ruins in Vienne, France.
Jean-Philippe Ksiazek, Getty Images

[h/t The Guardian]

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video
Learn How to Write (Very Basic) Cuneiform via YouTube
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Behrouz Mehri // AFP // Getty Images

Dr. Irving Finkel is an expert on cuneiform, the world's oldest known writing system. It was developed by the ancient Sumerians roughly 5000 years ago. The word "cuneiform" itself derives from the Latin cuneus, or "wedge"—the writing was traditionally done by pressing a wedge-shaped stylus onto a clay surface, which then dries and preserves the mark.

In the video below, Finkel shows Tom Scott and Matt Gray how to read and write just a bit of cuneiform. (Finkel says it takes about six years of training to become fully fluent...yikes!) It's a fascinating review, including the vital information that cuneiform script is syllabic, so you can represent English using cuneiform, minus a few vowel sounds—in the video, "Tom" becomes "Tam" (ta-am) due to a lack of the English "o" sound.

Tune in for a delightful lesson in an ancient writing system:

If you'd like to get started with cuneiform writing, this tool from the Penn Museum is handy. You'll also want some more training and a sample alphabet. Also interesting is this table of cuneiform numbers (note the Sumerian base 60 numbering system!).

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