Secret photo archives of the Mutter Museum: haunting book of Victorian pathological curiosities

Master archivist Rick Prelinger sez,
Always my first stop in Philadelphia, the Mutter Museum is the Victorian-era medical museum holding thousands of unforgettable (and often unsettling) objects, including anatomical and pathological specimens, models and instruments. While the Mutter demonstrates what 19th-century physicians did NOT know about disease, it also challenges our supposed sophistication about science and medicine and leads us to think about the infinite distance that separates us from the insides of our bodies.

The Mutter also has a historic archive of medical photographs, most of which have never been shown publicly. Now my friends at Blast Books have published a book of 200 images originally taken to illustrate medical and pathological conditions. Combining science and artistry, this is evidence you can't tear your eyes away from. As editor Laura Lindgren says, "Many of these photographs document unusual, sometimes nearly unimaginable, challenges of disorder, disease, and injury. A great many of these photographs are disquieting, yet they are equally moving in their portrayal of how these people endured their fate. A few photographs demonstrate the limited relief that medical science at the time was able to offer and thus show how very far medicine has advanced."

You may find this book disturbing, but you'll never think of your body the same way after looking at these amazing photos.

I've only visited the Mutter once, but it left an indelible mark on my psyche. As Rick says, I've never thought of my body the same way. I have a copy of gorgeous hardcover collection of the exhibits and it remains one of the most inspiring and haunting books on my shelf. Link (Thanks, Rick!)

See also:
The Mutter Museum in color photos
Curator of human oddities museum remembered


  1. Ever since I flunked breast reconstruction following mastectomy, the guilt associated with staring at or examining medical oddities, burn victims and/or amputees has faded.

    I am one of “them” now, even though you can’t tell when I’m clothed and wearing my prosthetic.

  2. I was at the Mutter Museum this previous Saturday for the first time, and I have to say that it is definitely worth the trip. My SO and I spent nearly three hours oogling their exhibits and reading the plaques. The place was packed with people and kids, and of course only pieces of dead people. The Soap Lady is the only whole dead person. If you’re in Philly, this is something every nerd will enjoy, whether you’re in medical school or not.

    Make sure to eat soft buttered pretzels made by the Amish from the Reading Terminal Market. Mmmmmmmmm

  3. It is worth mentioning the Mutter Museum has a no photography policy. I believe one of the editors of BB has posted about these stupid policies before.

    Because my pictures of human skulls behind glass are far superior to the professional photographs in the books that the gift shop sells…

    This museum dates back to 1858. I do not think Dr. Mutter would have liked knowing that the work he did to share medical knowledge with the world is being restricted by the current caretakers of his collection. In fact the Mutter’s own website states,

    “The Mütter Museum was founded to educate future doctors about anatomy and human medical anomalies. Today, it serves as a valuable resource for educating and enlightening the public about our medical past and telling important stories about what it means to be human. The Mütter Museum embodies The College of Physicians of Philadelphia ‘s mission to advance the cause of health, and uphold the ideals and heritage of medicine.”

    So let’s try and educate the world, but if they want pictures that they can reference later to enhance their learning, fuck them, let them buy a book from us!

    I live outside of Philadelphia and would be willing to make frequent trips to the Mutter Museum (my wife is a 1st year resident doctor) if it were not for this absurd policy.

  4. Two friends were married at the Mutter Museum or, more properly, at the College of Physicians building (in which the Museum is housed), but had cocktail hour in and around the Museum itself. That I could look at Chief Justice Marshall’s Gallstones while sipping a mandarin cosmopolitan and toast to my friends’ happiness was simply delightful, doubly so that the wedding was the Saturday before Halloween that year.

  5. I’m a philadelphia resident and I’ve been to the mutter museum more times then I can count. I’m also a photographer and I’ve gotten permission from the staff there to take pictures numerous times. You have to sign a form, they’re concerned about their exhibits being used ‘for the wrong purposes’. It’s basically an NDA.

  6. There is a book (Manual of Surgery – 6th edition circa 1921) containing similar clinical images that is available on the Project Gutenberg site:

    The html version has the photos. The pictures in this book make no pretensions to art – they are strictly clinical photos for the edification of physicians that may encounter patients with such afflictions.

Comments are closed.