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Medical Oddities in My Backyard

There are many reasons to visit Philadelphia – the Liberty Bell, it was our nation’s first capitol, the Franklin Institute, and I’ve been told we also have several sports teams that do quite well. But as a diehard science fan my big sell for coming to Philly has to be, hands down, the Mütter Museum. Now before you check out entirely at the mention of a science museum – let me tell you that this is no ordinary collection…but rather an assortment of conjoined twins, humans with horns, shrunken heads, gigantic genitalia, and everything in between.

I’ve lived in Philadelphia for about 2 years now and had no idea that I lived a mere 4 blocks away from this magnificent museum. It’s a nice little weekend trip – bring a date! I can’t think of a better litmus test for romantic compatibility than letting someone see how much you appreciate the death cast of Chang and Eng, the world famous conjoined Siamese twins. Anyways, I’ll give you a rundown of my favorite sections of the museum…

  • There is an enormous collection of skulls from all over Europe with each one labeled by name, location and cause of death. They really run the gamut from sailors, maidservants, murderers, gypsies, shoemakers and causes of death like cholera, suicide by hanging, cyanide poisoning, and even death by “self-inflicted removal of testicles” – OUCH.
  • There is a section with quite a few bound books, wallets and leather hides made from HUMAN SKIN. Ugh. Though it sounds disgusting today, some patients in the 19th century considered it an honor to have their doctor immortalize their skin by turning it into leather.

The Soap Lady


One of the more terrifying things to gaze upon is The Soap Lady. She has been preserved since sometime in the 19th century thanks to Saponification, (a process which turns fat into soap) which is very rare due to its dependence on specific factors (temperature, humidity, amount of body fat, bacterial presence, etc). Her mouth is wide open (think: that scene from “The Ring” with the girl in the closet) – I found it hard to look at for more than a few minutes.

  • There is a collection of drawers containing 2,374 things recovered from people’s esophagi and larynges (some super strange doctor actually collected and kept all of these things…eek). I asked the curator if they had a series of drawers of famous things they had recovered from people’s butts – he didn’t seem to think that was funny (I still maintain that it’s a legit question).
  • There is a jar of kidney stones ranging in size from the head of a pin to about the size of an oblong tennis ball (the largest on record was 2.5 lbs and the size of a coconut!). Yikes! Fellas, keep hydrated to avoid those things!
  • There is quite a large collection of infant and baby deformities (with real preserved fetuses in jars and on display in various poses), which is very interesting but perhaps not appropriate for the many, many young children who were there. I mean, I’m all for exposing children to science at a young age but I heard several “Mommy, is that baby dead?”/”Why are they keeping that baby in the jar? Can it breathe?” – Jesus. Folks, maybe wait a few years before you take your 4 year old to see freakish dead babies.
  • Much, much more including: body parts from US Presidents, the largest skeleton in North America, what can only be described as “nightmarishly large” genitalia, and a charming gift shop where I bought a syringe pen and a neuron toy!

I invite you all to come check it out for yourselves or take the virtual tour here!

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  1. Thanks for your spirited and sympathetic account of our museum. I am the museum director. One point, though–you say you asked the curator if, like the collection of swallowed objects, we had a collection of objects taken from people’s butts. Not sure with whom you spoke, but our curator is a she, and she would have answered, No, but if we had such a collection we would put it on display. Cheers, Robert Hicks

  2. melissa says:

    There are plenty of medical oddities here in Philadelphia outside of the Mutter, as well. Deep-fried cheese steak, anyone?

  3. Liz says:

    I live in Philly, too, and the Mutter Museum is fantastic.

    Out of sheer morbid curiosity, though…who told you we have sports teams that do quite well?

  4. Rachel says:

    Don’t let Nerdist and Dwight Schrute anywhere near this place.

  5. Nan says:

    Love the Mutter! Saw it a couple of months ago when I saw Princess Di’s wedding dress. Oh stop laughing you know if Amy Pond wore it- you would Loooove it!!! Xoxo a fellow Whoian

  6. Bonnie says:

    Ahh!! The Mütter is fantastic! I purchased their coffee table book a few years back — quite the conversation starter.

  7. Alyzabeth says:

    I will have to check some of that out and avoid some of it too.