Curator of human oddities museum remembered

Very few places have impressed me as deeply as Philadelphia's Mütter Museum, the College of Physicians' permanent pathology museum, build on the collection of a Victorian pathologist, since expanded and improved upon.

The Mütter's collection is devoted to preserved remains of human oddities. There are walls of syphilitic skulls (even a phrenologist's collection of suicide's skulls, annotated in crabbed handwriting with notes like OBSERVE SLOPING BROW — EVIDENCE OF CRIMINAL MENTALITY). There's a woman whose body was converted to soap by the alkali soil in which she was buried. Cabinets of thousands of jacks, rings, coins and pins extracted from chokers' windpipes by a celebrated specialist whose main claim to fame was the invention of a device that could fasten a safety pin lodged in a patient's windpipe prior to extraction, thus making the removal much safer.

All this is collected in lifelong curator Gretchen Worden's magnificent, lavishly illustrated Mutter Museum: Of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Worden died last year after giving a lifetime of service to improving and promoting the Mütter. Worden's sensibility turned the place into a shrine to its inhabitants, and a gripping, endlessly haunting exploration of how we human beings understand our own bodies. The Mütter has just unveiled a new exhibit room named in her honor.

There are jars of preserved human kidneys and livers, and a man's skull so eaten away by tertiary syphilis that it looks like pounded rock. There are dried severed hands shiny as lacquered wood, showing their veins like leaves; a distended ovary larger than a soccer ball; spines and leg bones so twisted by rickets they're painful just to see; the skeleton of a dwarf who stood 3 feet 6 inches small, next to that of a giant who towered seven and a half feet. And "Jim and Joe," the green-tinged corpse of a two-headed baby, sleeping in a bath of formaldehyde.


(Thanks, Kidneynotes!)