Wednesday, December 12, 2012

"M" is for the million things she gave me

As I exited the train station, I got a text message from my son that he was waiting outside of our predetermined destination — the Mütter Museum. I walked through a light drizzle to an ornate, yet unassuming collegiate-style building, nestled among the high-rises and offices on North 22nd Street. My son was pacing, hands jammed in his coat pockets, but he smiled when he recognized me approaching. Hundreds of people pass by this building daily, but how many know that just on the other side of those heavy wooden doors is a vast collection of human horrors that are capable of making one's head spin.

We entered the marble foyer that proudly displayed and acknowledged the names of those whose generosity had made the Mütter Museum an ongoing reality. Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter, a 19th century pioneer in plastic surgery, donated his collection to The College of Physicians of Philadelphia in hopes that it would be used for research and education. And, oh, the things Dr. Mütter collected. (My son, a past visitor, noted that the museum bears the good doctor's name for several reasons: it was his collection, he had a bit of an ego and, most importantly, if they called it "The Museum of Totally Fucked-Up Shit," no one would come.)

Once through the dignified reception area, past a formal sitting area replete with period furnishings, the adventure began. The subdued lighting shone down on a room lined with dark polished wood and glass showcases that stretched from floor to ceiling. Within the confines of glass and wood were examples of medical wonder ranging from the tiniest bone fragment to complete torsos, their contents splayed in preserved grisly Technicolor. The mind-dizzying accumulation includes wax replicas and actual specimens of appendages, limbs, organs and bones — some twisted and misshapen, some sprouting one or two angry red eruptions, some covered with ghastly amorphic growths rendering the specific body part unrecognizable. There is an entire wall of skulls garnered from every nook and cranny on earth, all in varying degrees of completeness and integrity, some sporting the results of poorly healed gunshot wounds. Down a flight of stairs, the exhibit continues (as my son stated in a tone of delighted caution, "Now, shit gets real!") with slices of brain, dissected spinal columns, bloated fetuses jarred and preserved in murky formaldehyde, sundry severed hands and feet, shiny with preservative lacquer, a detailed study of every conceivable eye disorder and drawers filled with various items that one doctor removed from patients over the course of his career — all numbered and cataloged. (The drawer marked "PINS" is particularly unnerving.) One wall features a graphic, yet lovingly presented overview of birth defects and adjacent to that is the pickled conjoined liver of celebrated 19th century Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker. Oh, and there's a forty-foot colon impossibly gorged with fecal matter.

My boy and I viewed the assorted oddities in awe, interjecting smart-ass commentary when we felt it necessary. (My son repeatedly approached the showcases and muttered authoritatively, "Now... what seems to be the trouble?") Nearly two hours later, our medical journey had drawn to a close and we were browsing the gift shop, but not before we waved "adieu" to a woman whose corpse had mysteriously turned to soap. That's right. Soap.

Philadelphia is renowned for the Liberty Bell and .... soft pretzels and cheese steaks I guess. However, if you ever get the chance to visit The City of Brotherly Love, skip that old cracked bell. Instead, I encourage you to visit the Mütter Museum and marvel at what could happen if one day, without warning, your body just turns on you. It truly is an enlightening experience.

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