Cemetery of the Week #80: the Mütter Museum

The Museum at is appeared in the 1880s.

The Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia
19 S 22nd Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19103
Phone: (215) 563-3737
Founded: 1858
Number of interments: several hundred
Open: 7 days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Closed: Thanksgiving, December 24, December 25, and January 1
Admission: General $15, Military and Senior (with ID) $13, Student (with ID) and 6-17 years $10. Children under 5 are free.

What makes a place a graveyard? Is it bodies interred in dirt? If that’s the case, then the USS Arizona Memorial isn’t a cemetery, despite what the National Park Service says. Is it the presences of markers standing over graves? The African Burial Ground didn’t cease to be a graveyard simply because it was forgotten and covered over. Is it a graveyard if it contains the residue of dead humans – like the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum or Westminster Abbey? Do the bodies have to be whole? Are the Paris Ossuary or the Capuchin Catacombs of Rome or the Bone Church of Kunta Hora graveyards? What about places that used to house bodies — like the Catacomb of St. Sebastian or the Atrium of St. Maclou — where all the bodies have been removed? Do they stop being cemeteries once they’re empty?

Everything on the list above has been featured as a Cemetery of the Week here on Cemetery Travel. As you can see, my definition of a graveyard is broad. The way I define cemeteries or graveyards, people or bits of people or the cremains or mummies of people must rest – or have rested – on the site for a period of time. A murder site is not a graveyard, unless, like the garden in Rouen where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, it becomes a permanent shrine.

With this broad definition of Cemetery of the Week in mind, we turn to Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, which has been described as “America’s finest museum of medical history.”

The Museum after remodeling in 1986. Photograph by Jack Ramsdale. From a postcard sold at the museum.

The Mütter is the legacy of Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter, a fellow at the College of Physicians in Philadelphia. In the 19th century, medicine wasn’t taught as it is now, with every budding young doctor able to dissect a donated cadaver. Body snatchers – and medical students themselves – did provide a limited number of practice corpses, even in the US, but since embalming would not become widely spread until the decades after the Civil War, bodies were dissected by the professor at the front of the room while students looked on from theater seats. Dr. Mütter made it his mission to collect preserved body parts and wax models that could be used again and again to teach medicine.

When Dr. Mütter passed on, he left his collection to the College with the stipulation they provide a museum building, hire a curator, and continue to add to the collection.

The Museum has acquired 23 adult skeletons since 1863. Only seven of these were on display in 2002 when the Mütter Museum book by Gretchen Worden was published. The others were kept in the storerooms to be studied.

Photograph by Jack Ramsdale, from a photo postcard sold in the museum.

Among those on display are a 7’6” giant who stands beside a 3’6” dwarf. At her feet in this postcard photograph is the skull of her child, whose head was too big to pass through her pelvis. Even though the doctor crushed it before the child could be born, it could not be delivered the usual way and a cesarean was performed. The mother died three days later.

Mary Ashberry had lived in a house of prostitution. Perhaps there was no one to claim her body. The giant who accompanies her came to the Museum with the stipulation that “no questions be asked” that might identify him, which leads me to wonder if his family didn’t know he was missing.

In 1973, the skeleton of Harry Eastlack came to the Museum as a donation after his death. He’d suffered since childhood with a condition that made bone grow in his muscles and other connective tissue. He’d hoped that the study of his skeleton would lead to a cure for the disease, which afflicts as few at 300 people worldwide.

The Museum purchased the skull collection of Dr. Joseph Hyrtl, which arrived in Philadelphia in 1874. The 70 skulls included representatives of “all the tribes of Eastern Europe” as well as two Hollanders, Pacific Islanders, and more. Hyrtl’s catalog claimed, “It is easier to get the skulls of Islanders of the Pacific than those of Moslems, Jews, and all the semi-savage tribes of the Balkan and Karpathien valleys. Risking his life, the gravestealer must be largely bribed.”

This casual attitude toward the theft of these skulls – many of which are marked with names, birthplaces, occupations, and causes of death – inclines me to treat them with reverence, to consider the Mütter Museum their grave.  It’s an honor to be able to visit them, so one should show proper respect.

Useful links:

The Mütter Museum homepage

The Mütter Museum’s youtube channel

Events at the Mütter Museum:

Coming up on Saturday, October 27: The Mütter Museum’s Annual Day of the Dead Festival. Come celebrate this traditional Mexican holiday with an all-day event at the Mütter Museum! Decorate sugar skulls, enjoy traditional food and drink, and visit the Museum!

Roadside America’s Mütter page

Follow the museum on Twitter.

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