CLOSE
Lily Landes
Lily Landes

11 Things You Won't See on Display at the Mütter Museum

Lily Landes
Lily Landes

On a cart in Anna Dhody’s office sits a small, innocuous box marked “caramel Danish rolls.” Open it up, though, and you won’t find a pastry; instead, there’s a human skull nestled inside. Nearby, there’s another cardboard box—this one labeled “brain slices”—and on the bookshelf sits a jar of dried human skin.

The presence of these items might seem pretty weird—if not alarming—under typical circumstances, but this is not a typical office. Dhody is a forensic anthropologist and the curator of Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, which houses anatomical specimens, models, and instruments from medical history. Visitors to the museum—which was founded by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia in 1858 from the collection of surgeon Thomas Mütter—can see the tumor removed from President Grover Cleveland’s jaw, slices of Einstein’s brain, a plaster cast of conjoined twins Chang and Eng, a dermoid cyst, and the tallest skeleton on display in North America.

But there’s much more that the museum doesn’t have on display. Dhody took us on a tour to give us a peek at what the public doesn’t get to see. (For more on the life of Thomas Mütter and the museum’s history, pick up Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz’s excellent book, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine.)

1. An Iron Lung

Though we now associate the iron lung with polio, the device was originally invented for coal miners who had inhaled toxic gasses, according to Dhody. This particular iron lung, used in the 1950s, was an Emerson Negative Pressure Ventilator. “I love this piece—it’s amazing—but it’s so big,” Dhody says; she estimates that it weighs more than 800 pounds. The machine would fit someone over six feet tall; his head would stick out, while his body was inside the chamber. “Your whole respiratory system is under a little bit of negative pressure—that’s what fills [the lungs] up with air and that’s what you need to breathe,” Dhody says. “So the engine would generate artificial negative pressure inside the chamber and basically force your ribcage to move up and down and allow you to breathe.” If the power went out, nurses would manually operate a bellows at the end of the iron lung to keep the negative pressure going. Though the machines aren’t used much anymore, “as of 2008, there were 80 people in the world that still use iron lungs either full- or part-time,” Dhody says.

2. A Mystery Penis

Though the Mütter is known for its human remains, the museum also has a fair amount of animal remains, which are important for comparative anatomy purposes. Picking the favorite of that collection is easy. “I can tell you that it’s a penis," Dhody says. "What I can’t tell you for sure is what kind of animal it comes from.” Though the tag reads “horse,” Dhody’s friend—an equine facilitator who owns a horse farm and “knows her horse junk”—put that myth to rest.

The preserved member is huge—easily the length of a person's arm—and Dhody isn’t sure when it became part of the collection. “It has an F number, which means found number,” she says. “It was way before my time.” Based on x-rays of the baculum, or penis bone, taken by the Philadelphia Zoo, “we’re basically thinking that it’s from a larger sea mammal—a walrus, sea lion, or elephant seal,” Dhody says.

3. A Jar of Human Skin

In 2009, a young woman with dermatillomania—a mental disorder that creates a need to pick skin off the body—donated a jar of skin she had picked off of her feet to the museum. Dhody promptly put that jar on display. Fast forward to 2014: “She’s still picking, and I’m still taking it,” Dhody says of the new jar of skin, donated earlier this year, that sits on her bookshelf. “What’s interesting is that this seems to churn people’s stomachs more than the severed limbs and heads in jars. They see this and go ‘ahh!’ I don’t get it. It’s skin.” There was a good reason for taking the skin, which, by the way, smells like romano cheese. “It has huge educational impact,” Dhody says. “How many other ways do I have of showing a physical manifestation of a mental disorder?” (Thankfully, the young woman making these donations only picks from her feet; others with dermatillomania can disfigure themselves.) Dhody might eventually combine both donations into a single jar for display, but, she says, “I like having it in my office right now.”

4. A Replica of Chamberlen Forceps

In the 1600s, two Chamberlen family brothers, both named Peter, worked as surgeons and obstetricians and invented modern obstetrical forceps—a technology that the family kept secret for a century. “The whole concept of intellectual property and who owns rights—it’s not just computer stuff,” Dhody says. “For a hundred years, this family dominated the field of obstetrics in Europe. They could command up to $10,000 [in the money of that time] for one birth all because of these two pieces of metal.” The Mütter’s pair of Chamberlen forceps is a metal replica that was made a couple of hundred years ago.

The design of modern forceps hasn’t changed much since the Chamberlens. “The one thing that is different is that those blades can come apart so you can insert one at a time into the vaginal canal, whereas [with this tool], they’re together,” Dhody says. “It’s amazing that this technology still exists. Forceps are going out of favor, but they are still used—not as much in America, but other parts of the world. It’s good when a baby is just stuck in there. If you are a practitioner who is skilled in the use of forceps, it’s safe. You know, there are risks involved, but there are more risks if the baby is stuck.”

5. A Pessary

“If you think about the skeletal structure of the human body—especially the lower abdominal area—there is no skeletal support structure for certain internal organs, including the uterus,” Dhody says. “Often times as a woman ages, or when she’s had a lot of children, the muscles, ligaments, and tendons will weaken and the uterus falls out of position; it can go down and through the vagina.” These days, doctors would probably opt to do a hysterectomy, but before that option was available, women “would insert an object up the vagina to kind of wedge it and keep that uterus from falling out,” Dhody says. The devices were called pessaries, and the museum has hundreds of them, including this one from the 19th century, which the curator finds particularly creepy because of the springs. “You can take it out, clean it, put it back in,” Dhody says. “You can still see these today—it’s a medical tool. But now they’re made out of surgical grade plastic. If you’re living in an area where surgery isn’t an option or if you have certain religious objections to that, then a pessary is a good bet.”

6. A Blood Circulator

This device, from the early 20th century, claimed to do “for internal organs what exercise will do for the limbs” as well as alleviate cold symptoms. “It was a suction thing,” Dhody says. “You’d push it against the body and it vibrates.” The instruction manual is full of photos of a presumed doctor placing the circulator on various parts of a woman’s body and cranking the handle, which the manufacturer claimed would create suction and increase blood flow to a particular area.

7. A Skull with Artificial Cranial Deformation

Dhody rediscovered this skull in the museum’s mobile storage. “I came across these boxes that said ‘caramel Danish rolls,’” she says, “and I was like, ‘What are the chances that these actually have caramel Danishes in them? Very little.’" She adds jokingly, "that happens a lot—it’s never a Danish. Sometimes you have enough skulls, and you just want a Danish.”

The skull, which has been artificially deformed, comes from Peru; Dhody guesses it’s from around the 1800s. “People in Peru practiced artificial deformation for hundreds and hundreds of years,” she says. “Up until about the 20th century, [there were] remote parts that were practicing it.”

8. Dhody’s Husband’s Gallbladder

“We have a friends and family plan at the Mütter,” Dhody says. “It’s basically acknowledged that if you work here, or if you are associated with anyone who works here, and you lose any body part for any reason, we have dibs.” So when her husband had his gallbladder removed, Dhody jumped at the chance to both watch the operation and make it part of the collection. “Unfortunately, it looks perfectly healthy,” she says. “I guarantee you, it was not when it was removed." Gallstones, she says, block the bile duct and cause inflammation, pain, and vomiting until they’re removed. Patients will get big stones—which you can see in the photo below—or microstones, which look like sludge and more easily block the duct.

Dhody's husband had microstones, so his gallbladder had to come out. To remove the gallbladder, surgeons made five small incisions—including one through the belly button—and inserted laparoscopic tools. “Then, they seal the gallbladder in, like, a tiny little body bag and tug it out,” Dhody says. Now, her husband’s gallbladder sits preserved in alcohol in the Mütter’s wet room, where the museum’s on-site conservation also takes place.

9. Intestinal Specimen

The wet specimens are housed in a climate controlled room where the air is exchanged six to eight times every hour, with redundant units to ensure it’s always the proper temperature. The majority of the Mütter’s specimens are preserved in alcohol, which doesn’t destroy DNA. “This doesn’t look too interesting because it’s just a intestinal specimen,” Dhody says, “but this is one of a series of specimens from individuals who died of cholera in the 1849 outbreak that killed over 1000 people [in Philadelphia]. What we were able to do, long story short, is we were able to get the DNA not just of the individual—we got the DNA of the cholera. To my knowledge, when this was published earlier this year, it was the oldest viable DNA of a pathogen recovered from a fluid filled specimen ever.”

This is important, Dhody says, because it helps scientists trace the ancestry of pathogens. Though less prevalent than it once was, cholera still kills thousands of people a year. “If we know this particular strain—which is called a Vibrio strain of cholera—killed over 1000 people in 1849, and then we can find other specimens and other people who have had cholera, and we can trace the lineage of the pathogen through history as it changes,” Dhody says. “Now the more prevalent variety of cholera you see in the world is the El Tor; that’s the strain that killed people in Haiti [after the 2010 earthquake]. Thousands of people die of cholera still, in the 21st century. So this shows how a 19th century specimen can have very important 21st century medical and scientific relevance.” The museum created a research arm called the Mütter Institute, which hopes to use historical and ancient specimens to help solve 21st century health issues.

10. Brain Slices

The museum has 670 brain slices; some of them were in Dhody’s office in a cardboard box with “brain slices” scrawled on the side. “Every one has a pathology somehow that related to the brain, whether it was a stroke, cancer, or dementia,” Dhody says, “and we have all the antemortem information but we have redacted it for personal reasons.”

11. Historical Medical Photographs

“Something we don’t have a lot of on exhibit—I wish we did, and maybe we will in the future—is our historical photographs,” Dhody says. “Since the moment that photography was invented, it was used for medical purposes. Doctors immediately realized, ‘Hey, I can take pictures of my patients’ pathology so I can mail them to other doctors—I don’t have to cart the patient around or get the doctor to come to see the patient.’ The medical implications of photography were groundbreaking.” Among the photos in the collection is the one above. Though there’s no information written on the back, Dhody says that “judging by the way it’s kind of floppy like that, it makes more sense for it to be a uterine or ovarian cyst—something like that. It could be a tumor. It’s definitely something that’s not supposed to be there.” The photo below is a painting of the uterus of a pregnant cow, circa 1850.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Disney/Marvel
arrow
entertainment
The 10 Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now
Disney/Marvel
Disney/Marvel

If you’re in the mood for some speculative fiction and your pile of Arthur C. Clarke books has been exhausted, you could do worse than to tune in to Netflix. The streaming service is constantly acquiring new films in the sci-fi and fantasy genres that should satisfy most fans of alternative futures. Here are five of the best sci-fi movies on Netflix right now.

1. CUBE (1997)

This low-budget independent film may have helped inspire the current "escape room" attraction fad. Six strangers wake up in a strange room that leads only to other rooms—all of them equipped with increasingly sadistic ways of murdering occupants.

2. METROPOLIS (1927)

Inspiring everything from Star Wars to Lady Gaga, Fritz Lang’s silent epic about a revolt among the oppressed people who help power an upper-class city remains just as visually impressive today as it did nearly 100 years ago.

3. TROLL HUNTER (2010)

A Norwegian fairy tale with bite, Troll Hunter follows college-aged filmmakers who convince a bear trapper to take them along on his exploits. But the trapper fails to disclose one crucial detail: He hunts towering, aggressive trolls.

4. NEXT (2007)

Nic Cage stars a a magician who can see a few minutes into the future. He's looking to profit with the skill: the FBI and others are looking to exploit it.

5. THE HOST (2006)

A slow-burn monster movie from South Korea, The Host has plenty of tense scenes coupled with a message about environmental action: The river-dwelling beast who stalks a waterfront town is the product of chemical dumping.  

6. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOLUME 2 (2017)

Marvel's tale of a misfit band of space jockeys was a surprise hit in 2014. The sequel offers more Groot, more Rocket Raccoon, and the addition of Kurt Russell as a human manifestation of an entire sentient planet.

7. STARDUST (2007)

Director Matthew Vaughn's adaptation of the Neil Gaiman novel features Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro as supporting players in the tale of a man (a pre-Daredevil Charlie Cox) in search of a fallen star to gift to his love.

8. KING KONG (2005)

Director Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) set his considerable sights on a remake of the 1933 classic, with the title gorilla pestered and exploited by opportunistic humans.

9. DONNIE DARKO (2001)

What will a teenage mope do when a giant rabbit tells him the world is about to end? The answer comes in this critical and cult hit, which drew attention for its moody cinematography and an arresting performance by a then-unknown Jake Gyllenhaal.  

10. ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

Soon we'll have a movie for every single major or minor incident ever depicted in the Star Wars universe. For now, we'll have to settle for this one-off that explains how the Rebel Alliance got their hands on the plans for the Death Star.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Library and Archives Canada, Wikimedia // Public Domain
arrow
Weird
9 False Rumors With Real-Life Consequences
King Louis XV of France
King Louis XV of France
Library and Archives Canada, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Don’t believe everything you read—or everything you hear. Unverified but plausible-sounding rumors have been the basis for violent death and destruction throughout history, whether or not the stories had anything to do with the truth.

In their book A Colorful History of Popular Delusions, Robert Bartholomew and Peter Hassall describe rumors as “stories of perceived importance that lack substantiating evidence.” They also note that the sociologist Tamotsu Shibutani describes rumors as “improvised news,” which tends to spread when the demand for information exceeds supply. Such an information deficit most often occurs during wars and other crises, which might explain why some rumors have had such dramatic results. Here’s a selection of some of the most interesting rumors with real-life results collected in Bartholomew and Hassall’s book.

1. KING LOUIS XV WAS KIDNAPPING CHILDREN.

In 1750, children began disappearing from the streets of Paris. No one seemed to know why, and worried parents began rioting in the streets. In the midst of the panic, a rumor broke out that King Louis XV had become a leper and was kidnapping children so that he could bathe in their blood (at the time, bathing in the blood of children was thought by some to be an effective leprosy cure).

The rumor did have a tiny kernel of truth: Authorities were taking children away, but not to the king’s palace. A recently enacted series of ordinances designed to clear the streets of “undesirables” had led some policemen—who were paid per arrest—to overstep their authority and take any children they found on the streets to houses of detention. Fortunately, most were eventually reunited with their parents, and rumors of the king’s gruesome bathing rituals were put to rest.

2. LONDON WAS GOING TO BE DESTROYED BY AN EARTHQUAKE.

Two small earthquakes struck London at the beginning of 1761, leading to rumors that the city was due for “the big one” on April 5, 1761. Supposedly, a psychic had predicted the catastrophe. Much of the populace grew so panicked that they fled town for the day, with those who couldn’t afford fancier lodgings camping out in the fields. One soldier was so convinced of the impending doom that he ran through the streets shouting news of London’s imminent destruction; sadly, he ended up in an insane asylum a few months later.

3. JEWS WERE POISONING WELLS.

A deep well
iStock

Reports that Jews ritually sacrificed Christian children were not uncommon during the Middle Ages, but things took a particularly terrible turn during the spread of the Black Plague. In the 14th century, thousands of Jews were killed in response to rumors that Satan was protecting them from the plague in exchange for poisoning the wells of Christians. In 1321 in Guienne, France alone, an estimated 5000 Jews were burned alive for supposedly poisoning wells. Other communities expelled the Jews, or burned entire settlements to the ground. Brandenburg, Germany, even passed a law denouncing Jews for poisoning wells—which of course they weren't.

4. BRIGANDS WERE TERRORIZING THE FRENCH COUNTRYSIDE.

In July 1789, amid the widespread fear and instability on the eve of the French revolution, rumors spread that the anti-revolutionary nobility had planted brigands (robbers) to terrorize the peasants and steal their stores of food. Lights from furnaces, bonfires, and even the reflection of the setting sun were sometimes taken to be signs of brigands, with panic as the predictable result. Provincial towns and villages formed militias in response to the rumors, even though, as historian Georges Lefebvre put it, “the populace scared themselves.” In one typical incident, near Troyes on July 24, 1789, a group of brigands were supposedly spotted heading into some woods; an alarm was sounded and 3000 men gave chase. The “brigands” turned out to be a herd of cattle.

5. GERMAN-AMERICANS WERE PLOTTING SNEAK ATTACKS ON CANADA.

Officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police marching in a Canada Day parade
iStock

Canada entered World War I in 1914, three years before the United States did. During the gap period, rumors circulated that German-Americans sympathetic to their country of origin were planning surprise attacks on Canada. One of the worst offenders of such rumor-mongering, according to authors Bartholomew and Hassall, was British consul-general Sir Courtenay Bennett, then stationed in New York. In the early months of 1915, Bennett made “several sensational claims about a plan in which as many as 80,000 well-armed, highly trained Germans who had been drilling in Niagara Falls and Buffalo, New York, were planning to invade Canada from northwestern New York state.” Bizarre as it may sound, there was so much anxiety and suspicion during the period that Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden requested a report on the story, which the Canadian police commissioner determined to be without any foundation whatsoever.

6. THE INDONESIAN GOVERNMENT WAS HUNTING HEADS FOR CONSTRUCTION PROJECTS.

In certain parts of Indonesia, locals reportedly believe—or once did—that large-scale construction projects require human heads to keep the structures from crumbling. In 1937, one island was home to a spate of rumors saying that a tjoelik (government-sanctioned headhunter) was looking for a head to place near a local jetty construction project. Locals reported strange noises and sights, houses pelted with stones, and attacks from tjoelik wielding nooses or cowboy lassos. Similar rumors surfaced in 1979 in Indonesian Borneo, when government agents were supposedly seeking a head for a new bridge project, and in 1981 in Southern Borneo, when the government headhunters supposedly needed heads to stabilize malfunctioning equipment in nearby oil fields. Terrified townspeople began curtailing their activities so as not to be in public any longer than necessary, although the rumors eventually died down.

7. POWERFUL APHRODISIAC GUM WENT ON SALE IN THE MIDDLE EAST.

An assortment of sticks of pink bubble gum
iStock

In the mid-1990s, the Middle East was home to some alarming rumors about aphrodisiacal gum. In 1996 in Mansoura, Egypt, stories began spreading that students at the town’s university had purchased gum deliberately spiked with an aphrodisiac and were having orgies as a result. One local member of parliament said the gum had been distributed by the Israeli government as part of a plot to corrupt Egyptian youth. Mosque loudspeakers began warning people to avoid the gum, which was supposedly sold under the names “Aroma” or “Splay.” Authorities closed down some shops and made arrests, but never did find any tainted gum. Similar rumors cropped up the following year in the Gaza Strip, this time featuring a strawberry gum that turned women into prostitutes—supposedly, the better to convince them to become Shin Bet informants for the Israeli military.

8. SORCERERS WERE PLAGUING INDONESIA.

In the fall of 1998, a sorcerer scare in East Java, Indonesia, resulted in the deaths of several villagers. The country was in crisis, and while protests raged in major cities, some in the rural area of Banyuwangi began agitating for restitution for past wrongs allegedly committed by sorcerers. The head of the local district ordered authorities to move the suspected sorcerers to a safe location, a process that included a check-in at the local police station. Unfortunately, villagers took the suspects’ visits to police stations as proof of their sorcery and began killing them. Anthropologists who studied the incident said the stories of supposed sorcery—making neighbors fall sick, etc.—were based entirely on rumor and gossip.

9. OBAMA WAS INJURED BY A WHITE HOUSE EXPLOSION.

These days, rumors have advanced technology to help them travel. On April 23, 2013, a fake tweet from a hacked Associated Press account claimed that explosions at the White House had injured Barack Obama. That lone tweet caused instability on world financial markets, and the Standard and Poor’s 500 Index lost $130 billion in a short period. Fortunately, it quickly recovered. (Eagle-eyed journalists were suspicious of the tweet from the beginning, since it didn’t follow AP style of referring to the president with his title and capitalizing the word breaking.)

An earlier version of this story ran in 2015.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios