Mütter Museum


In 1849, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, following trends in medical education and research, created a museum of anatomy and pathology. After Thomas Dent Mütter (1811-59) donated his world-class collection in 1858, the expanded institution became the Mütter Museum—one of the best medical collections in the city and in the country. Together, as their missions evolved, the museum and the college showed that a collection from the nineteenth century could be engaged in new ways for new visitors, both medical and non-medical. In the twenty-first century, the museum addressed contemporary concerns in the fields of medicine and public health while also documenting the history of science and evoking larger meditations on life, death, and the human body.

Thomas Dent Mütter, whose collection of medical specimens helped create one of the most renowned medical museums, was also a skilled and innovative surgeon. (Thomas Jefferson University)

Mütter, who graduated from medical school at the University of Pennsylvania in 1831, taught and practiced medicine at Jefferson Medical College as the Chair of Surgery from 1841 until 1856. While doing so, he built the collection of more than a thousand items that he donated to the college along with a $30,000 endowment to maintain the collection and fund a lectureship. Bones, wet preparations, casts, and watercolor paintings dominated the gift, which also included wax preparations, dried preparations, papier-mache models, and oil paintings.

Mütter stipulated that the College of Physicians (founded in 1787) construct a new, fireproof building to house the collection within five years of his donation. In 1863, the requisite building opened at Thirteenth and Locust Streets, and over time the museum’s collections expanded through additional gifts, donations, and purchases. The collections were meant to be educational, but because the Mütter was never part of a medical school they served the continuing education of members of the college more than doctors in training. However, little is known as to how widely members used the museum. Ambivalence about the museum emerged despite the time, money, and other resources put into acquisitions. Upon the centennial of the college in 1887, some, like S. Weir Mitchell (1829-1914), praised the museum as “one of the most valuable and interesting collections in America.” Others, like W.S.W. Ruschenberger (1807-95), suggested that “many visit the museum merely to gratify curiosity. How many resort to it only for study, or consult it for information alone, has not been ascertained.”

Restrictions on Use of Museum Income

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the oldest medical society in the United States, hosts the Mütter Museum of medical oddities in its building at Twenty-Second and Ludlow Streets. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Some of the ambivalence resulted from the fact that surplus income from the Mütter endowment could not be used by the college for other purposes. The library in particular needed more space, and library staff as well as many members of the college viewed old pathological specimens as less useful than books and journals containing current information on medical research. While specimens could best teach lessons in older fields like anatomy, books were more useful in emergent laboratory-based fields like bacteriology. Ultimately, the college used income from the endowment to add a third floor that benefited the library as well as the growing museum. The expansion opened in 1886.

By the turn of the twentieth century, however, the college needed still more space and constructed a new building at Twenty-Second and Ludlow Streets. The building, completed in 1909, had dedicated space for the museum, although more room for the library stacks. The design of the exhibit space emulated museums in Europe with an open lower level surrounded by a mezzanine that let natural light into the gallery. Some of the wood and glass display cases likely came from the old location and newer cases resembled the nineteenth-century originals.

Dr. Josef Hyrtl’s skull collection, acquired by the Mütter Museum in 1874, helped the Austrian physician discredit phrenology. (Visit Philadelphia)

The architecture, cabinetry, and specimens remained the same into the twenty-first century—garnering the Mütter a reputation as a museum of a museum. Retained historical exhibits included the American Giant seen alongside Mary Ashberry, a dwarf, and the Hyrtl Skulls organized row upon row for easy comparison and aesthetic appeal. Other displays, such as congenital deformities, survived with the arrangements and labels of an earlier date, but curators added text to explain the labels as historical documents that included past language that had become derogatory and offensive.

Despite the new home established in 1909, the collections languished throughout much of the twentieth century because education and innovation in the medical field shifted to subjects like microbiology, which did not use the same specimens that anatomy and pathology once had. The Mütter’s utility was also limited because medical students still had access to collections at their home institutions and gaining entry to the museum required a discouraging amount of paperwork. However, as part of a medical society rather than a school, the Mütter remained insulated from needs to align with new methods of learning or jettison space-consuming specimens and thus it survived when its peers did not.

Visitation Diversifies

In the mid-twentieth century, curators like Ella Wade (1892-1980) and Elizabeth Moyer (1917-97) cared for the collections and administered visitation permissions to medical schools, nursing schools, and biology classes. By the 1970s, attendance diversified when students from Moore College of Art came to the museum to sketch and other casual, nonmedical visitors came in somewhat greater numbers. A boost came from the 1976 Bicentennial when the Philadelphia Visitor and Convention Guide listed the museum in its brochure, presenting it both as a tourist attraction and as a site of American heritage.

Visitors receive a lesson on the “giant” seven-foot-six-inch skeleton on display at the Mütter Museum. Medical specimens like this have helped attract over 180,000 visitors a year to the museum. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

Also in the mid-1970s, Gretchen Worden (1947-2004) began her 29-year tenure at the institution, a career that transformed the Mütter Museum into a Philadelphia icon far better known to the public than the College of Physicians. Not all at the college welcomed this development. Despite those members, however, the museum attracted more and more visitors—growing from 1,800 in 1959 to 5,000 annually in the 1980s and to 24,000 in 1997.  It also faced new problems of interpretation. While the medical field had been historically comfortable with the objectification of people with diseases and disabilities—labeling them monstrous and grotesque—nonmedical visitors, new codes of medical ethics, and progressive approaches to museum exhibition changed curatorial strategies.

Confronted by these new interests, the twentieth-century museum had to face its nineteenth-century roots as both a medical institution and as a museum. When the Mütter Museum was established, emerging ideas about medical authority, scientific objectivity, and technologies like photography—which the Mütter collected—had a tendency to overlook the human pain of disease and disability and diminish the individuality of the patient. The museum, with its objects and body parts, had a parallel effect. In addition to reflecting the earlier approach to medical practice, the Mütter Museum developed from a Victorian-era interest in objects as things that could be ordered, controlled, and mastered amidst an unruly and rapidly changing world.

By the late twentieth century, changing ethics in both medicine and museums meant that displays of body parts could seem exploitative, and nonmedical visitors could seem like voyeurs taking pleasure in the disembodied pain of others. Although the collections could still be informative for nonmedical visitors who might view the collections with respect, their spectatorship could also easily look like gawking at diseased bodies for entertainment.

Pathology With an Artistic Bent

Worden’s approach to this problem focused on the collections’ hidden aesthetics. Rather than seeing pathology as ugly, grotesque, or abnormal, she invited art photographers to take pictures of the specimens and to show the body—even the diseased body—as beautiful, as a testament not to horror, but to humanity. New projects, including the calendar she created with artist Laura Lindgren (b. 1959), photography exhibits in the museum, and fellowships for artists to use the museum and library reoriented the collections away from exclusively medical constructions of the body as object and toward conventions of fine art that conveyed respect and fostered reflection.

In the 2000s, curator Anna Dhody (b. 1974) helped the College of Physicians establish exhibits and programs to engage the historic collections with contemporary concerns about public health. A History of Vaccines website launched in 2010. Interpretive labeling evolved. In other programs, LGBTQ+ youth gave tours that used the Hyrtl collection to show the difficulty of identifying gender—much less race—based on bone structure. Additionally, the Mütter Research Institute created in 2014 encouraged modern research with the historic collections.

Begun with a world-class medical collection in the nineteenth century, in the twentieth century the Mütter Museum became a relic maintained through inertia and the support of the College of Physicians as a home institution. By the twenty-first century, however, the museum took advantage of its reliquary status and adopted new roles as a document of medical heritage, a meditation on disease, life, and death, and an exploration of the simultaneous beauty and monstrosity of the body and of humanity itself. As a tourist attraction that garnered over 180,000 visitors a year, the museum no longer simply survived within the auspices of the College of Physicians, but helped finance it. Indeed, plans for the expansion of exhibit space announced in 2018 demonstrated that the museum was driving not only the public identity and financial security of the College of Physicians but also broader conversations about public health and public history.

Mabel Rosenheck is a writer and historian in Philadelphia. She received her Ph.D. in media and cultural studies from Northwestern University and works at the Wagner Free Institute of Science, Temple University, and elsewhere. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2019, Rutgers University


Thomas Dent Mütter, circa 1846

Thomas Jefferson University

Although Thomas Dent Mütter (1811-59) is best known for the museum named after him, he was also a skilled and innovative surgeon. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1831, he took a position at Jefferson Medical College, where he served as Chair of Surgery from 1841 to 1856. His area of expertise was reconstructive surgery, and he operated on hundreds of patients with congenital disabilities, often developing groundbreaking methods of treatment.

Immensely popular with his students, Mütter became known for his “Mütter Flap,” an early way to graft skin that is still used today, and in 1846, he became the first physician in Philadelphia to administer anesthesia. Mütter originally offered his medical specimen collection to Jefferson, but as it did not have the space the college refused and Mütter bequeathed it to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia instead.

College of Physicians of Philadelphia, 1908

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia was founded in 1787 by twenty-four Philadelphia physicians to advance the field of medicine. To aid with this, in 1858 Thomas Dent Mütter (1811-59) donated his extensive medical collection to the College with the stipulation that a new building be constructed to showcase the specimens.

While the Mütter Museum became a well-known tourist destination in the late twentieth century, the College also long contributed to the field of medicine through the work of many prestigious fellows and physicians, including Benjamin Rush (1746-1813) and Silas Weir Mitchell (1829-1914), the first neurosurgeon in the United States. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Medical Library also served as one of the city’s primary medical libraries for 150 years, and today functions as an archive on the history of medicine, containing over 12,000 rare books. The College and its medical library, while privately owned, are both open to the public.

Hyrtl’s Skull Collection Displayed at the Mütter Museum

Visit Philadelphia

In 1874, the Mütter Museum purchased a collection of 139 skulls from Josef Hyrtl (1810-94), a physician in Vienna. Hyrtl’s research and his collection discredited phrenologists who argued that skull shape and size—features usually linked to race—determined intelligence. To the contrary, Hyrtl found natural, random variation both within and between races. Along with the skulls came research data on each person including name, birthplace, cause of death, age, occupation, and religion.

The museum lacked information like this for most specimens because nineteenth-century doctors were deliberately uninterested in the identities of the people whose diseased body parts they viewed as scientific objects. At the time, identifying information also seemed unnecessary because the people whose bodies became specimens were usually social outcasts—some of Hyrtl’s subjects were criminals and suicides—and so their unclaimed bodies could be converted into scientific objects without objection because neither the doctors nor society at large cared what happened to them. The presence of this information for the Hyrtl Skulls—although originally collected for dispassionate scientific purposes--gave these specimens a unique presence for non-medical visitors to the museum.

Visitors at the Mütter Museum

When Thomas Dent Mütter (1811-59) donated his collection to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, he stipulated that a new building must be constructed to house it. The first building for the collection, completed in 1863 at Thirteenth and Locust streets, was mostly visited by medical professionals. The collection remained largely isolated from the public despite its move to a larger location at Twentieth and Ludlow Streets in 1909.

Visitation grew during the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, as illustrated by this photograph of visitors gathered around the musem’s “giant” seven-foot-six-inch skeleton. During the mid-twentieth century, museum curators began to issue visitation passes to a variety of medical and nonmedical classes, and later the inclusion of the museum in a Bicentennial celebration brochure also boosted visitation. During the 1970s, the Mütter underwent a transformation and increasingly catered to tourists eager to see medical oddities and pieces of history such as the vertebra of John Wilkes Booth and a section of Albert Einstein's brain. For the general public, the museum became better known than the College of Physicians that hosted it and visitation rose from 1,800 in 1959 to 10,000 in 1993, and then escalated dramatically to 180,000 by 2018. Today, tourists from around the world come to visit the historic museum and its collections. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

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Related Reading

Bell, Whitfield J. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia: A Bicentennial History. Canton, Mass.: Science History Publications, 1987. 

Cappello, Mary. Swallow: Foreign Bodies, Their Ingestion, Inspiration, and the Curious Doctor Who Extracted Them. New York: New Press, 2011.

Hicks, Robert D. “The Disturbingly Informative Mütter Museum.” In Medical Museums: Past, Present, Future, edited by Samuel J. M. M. Alberti and Elizabeth Hallam, 172–85. London: Royal College of Surgeons of England, 2013.

Jones, Nora L. “The Mütter Museum: The Body as Spectacle, Specimen, and Art.” Temple University, 2002.

Komori, Masaki. “Dead Bodies on Display: Museum Ethics in the History of the Mütter Museum.” The Journal of American and Canadian Studies, 35 (2017) 49-74.

Lindgren, Laura. Mütter Museum: Historic Medical Photographs. New York: Blast Books, 2007.

McLeary, Erin H. “Science in a Bottle: The Medical Museum in North America, 1860-1940.” University of Pennsylvania, 2001.

__________. “The Mütter Museum: Education, Preservation, and Commemoration.” Annals of Internal Medicine, Vol. 132, No. 7 (Apr., 2000), 599–603.

Mitchell, S. Weir. “Centennial Anniversary of the Institution of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia: Commemorative Address.” Transactions of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Vol. 3, No. 9 (1887), cccxxxvii-ccclxvi.

Ruschenberger, W.S.W. “An Account of the Institution and Progress of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.” Transactions of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Vol. 3, No. 9 (1887), xxxiii-ccvi.

Worden, Gretchen. Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. New York: Blast Books, 2002.

Wu, Cynthia. Chang and Eng Reconnected: The Original Siamese Twins in American Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012.

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