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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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History
9 Victims of King Tut's Curse (And One Who Should Have Been)
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Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

When King Tutankhamen's tomb was discovered on November 26, 1922—after more than 3000 years of uninterrupted repose—some believed the pharaoh unleashed a powerful curse of death and destruction upon all who dared disturb his eternal slumber.

Like any urban legend or media sensation, the alleged curse grew to epic proportions over the years. Here are nine people who might make you believe in such things, and one who should have been a direct recipient of Tut's wrath but got off with nary a scratch.

1. GEORGE HERBERT, 5TH EARL OF CARNARVON

The man who financed the excavation of King Tut's tomb was the first to succumb to the supposed curse. Lord Carnarvon accidentally tore open a mosquito bite while shaving and ended up dying of blood poisoning shortly thereafter. This occurred a few months after the tomb was opened and a mere six weeks after the press started reporting on the "mummy's curse," which was thought to afflict anyone associated with disturbing the mummy. Legend has it that when Lord Carnarvon died, all of the lights in his house mysteriously went out.

2. SIR BRUCE INGHAM

Howard Carter, the archaeologist who discovered the tomb, gave a paperweight to his friend Ingham as a gift. The paperweight appropriately (or perhaps quite inappropriately) consisted of a mummified hand wearing a bracelet that was supposedly inscribed with the phrase, "cursed be he who moves my body." Ingham's house burned to the ground not long after receiving the gift, and when he tried to rebuild, it was hit with a flood.

3. GEORGE JAY GOULD

Gould was a wealthy American financier and railroad executive who visited the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1923 and fell sick almost immediately afterward. He never really recovered and died of a pneumonia a few months later.

4. AUBREY HERBERT

It's said that Lord Carnarvon's half-brother suffered from King Tut's curse merely by being related to him. Aubrey Herbert was born with a degenerative eye condition and became totally blind late in life. A doctor suggested that his rotten, infected teeth were somehow interfering with his vision, and Herbert had every single tooth pulled from his head in an effort to regain his sight. It didn't work. He did, however, die of sepsis as a result of the surgery, just five months after the death of his supposedly cursed brother.

5. HUGH EVELYN-WHITE

Evelyn-White, a British archaeologist, visited Tut's tomb and may have helped excavate the site. After seeing death sweep over about two dozen of his fellow excavators by 1924, Evelyn-White hung himself—but not before writing, allegedly in his own blood, "I have succumbed to a curse which forces me to disappear."

6. AARON EMBER

American Egyptologist Aaron Ember was friends with many of the people who were present when the tomb was opened, including Lord Carnarvon. Ember died in 1926, when his house in Baltimore burned down less than an hour after he and his wife hosted a dinner party. He could have exited safely, but his wife encouraged him to save a manuscript he had been working on while she fetched their son. Sadly, they and the family's maid died in the catastrophe. The name of Ember's manuscript? The Egyptian Book of the Dead.

7. RICHARD BETHELL

Bethell was Lord Carnarvon's secretary and the first person behind Carter to enter the tomb. He died in 1929 under suspicious circumstances: He was found smothered in his room at an elite London gentlemen's club. Soon after, the Nottingham Post mused, "The suggestion that the Hon. Richard Bethell had come under the ‘curse’ was raised last year, when there was a series of mysterious fires at it home, where some of the priceless finds from Tutankhamen’s tomb were stored." No evidence of a connection between artifacts and Bethell's death was established, though.

8. SIR ARCHIBALD DOUGLAS REID

Proving that you didn't have to be one of the excavators or expedition backers to fall victim to the curse, Reid, a radiologist, merely x-rayed Tut before the mummy was given to museum authorities. He got sick the next day and was dead three days later.

9. JAMES HENRY BREASTED

Breasted, another famous Egyptologist of the day, was working with Carter when the tomb was opened. Shortly thereafter, he allegedly returned home to find that his pet canary had been eaten by a cobra—and the cobra was still occupying the cage. Since the cobra is a symbol of the Egyptian monarchy, and a motif that kings wore on their headdresses to represent protection, this was a rather ominous sign. Breasted himself didn't die until 1935, although his death did occur immediately after a trip to Egypt.

10. HOWARD CARTER

Carter never had a mysterious, inexplicable illness and his house never fell victim to any fiery disasters. He died of lymphoma at the age of 64. His tombstone even says, "May your spirit live, may you spend millions of years, you who love Thebes, sitting with your face to the north wind, your eyes beholding happiness." Perhaps the pharaohs saw fit to spare him from their curse.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Scientists Discover a Mysterious Void in the Great Pyramid of Giza
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The Great Pyramid of Giza, the largest in all of Egypt, was built more than 4500 years ago as the final resting place of the 4th Dynasty pharaoh Khufu (a.k.a. Cheops), who reigned from 2509 to 2483 BCE. Modern Egyptologists have been excavating and studying it for more than a century, but it's still full of mysteries that have yet to be fully solved. The latest discovery, detailed in a new paper in the journal Nature, reveals a hidden void located with the help of particle physics. This is the first time a new inner structure has been located in the pyramid since the 19th century.

The ScanPyramids project, an international endeavor launched in 2015, has been using noninvasive scanning technology like laser imaging to understand Egypt's Old Kingdom pyramids. This discovery was made using muon tomography, a technique that generates 3D images from muons, a by-product of cosmic rays that can pass through stone better than similar technology based on x-rays, like CT scans. (Muon tomography is currently used to scan shipping containers for smuggled goods and image nuclear reactor cores.)

The ScanPyramids team works inside Khufu's Pyramid
ScanPyramids

The newly discovered void is at least 100 feet long and bears a structural resemblance to the section directly below it: the pyramid's Grand Gallery, a long, 26-foot-high inner area of the pyramid that feels like a "very big cathedral at the center of the monument," as engineer and ScanPyramids co-founder Mehdi Tayoubi said in a press briefing. Its size and shape were confirmed by three different muon tomography techniques.

They aren't sure what it would have been used for yet or why it exists, or even if it's one structure or multiple structures together. It could be a horizontal structure, or it could have an incline. In short, there's a lot more to learn about it.

In the past few years, technology has allowed researchers to access parts of the Great Pyramid never seen before. Several robots sent into the tunnels since the '90s have brought back images of previously unseen areas. Almost immediately after starting to examine the Great Pyramid with thermal imaging in 2015, the researchers discovered that some of the limestone structure was hotter than other parts, indicating internal air currents moving through hidden chambers. In 2016, muon imaging indicated that there was at least one previously unknown void near the north face of Khufu's pyramid, though the researchers couldn't identify where exactly it was or what it looked like. Now, we know its basic structure.

A rendering shows internal chambers within the Great Pyramid and the approximate structure of the newly discovered void.
ScanPyramids

"These results constitute a breakthrough for the understanding of Khufu's Pyramid and its internal structure," the ScanPyramids team writes in Nature. "While there is currently no information about the role of this void, these findings show how modern particle physics can shed new light on the world's archaeological heritage."

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