“The skull is nature’s sculpture” according to David Bailey, and the dozens of skulls lining the easternmost wall of the Mütter Museum are a testament to the beauty of the brain’s home. These aren’t the only macabre items in the medical museum, though—wet specimens like tumors, wax models, skeletons, and antique medical equipment dwell in the Mütter. If you’re a physician in training, a lover of medicine, or simply a seeker of the weird and morbid, the Mütter Museum is a must-visit. It is, undoubtedly, the coolest museum in Philadelphia.
Part of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the museum houses the collection of Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter. Dr. Mütter donated his 1,700-item personal store of bones, plaster cards, and medical illustrations in 1858, and the current building holds the original items as well as ones that have since been added.
Today, visitors can learn what’s beneath the surface of medical study. Body parts preserved in fluid, skeletal formations like that of 7’6” man, and the death cast of the original “Siamese Twins” are just some of the anatomically strange to discover.
Throughout the year, guests can enjoy a variety of permanent and temporary displays. The grand marble and tasteful oak of the Mütter’s interior hold special or featured exhibits, like examinations of connective tissue, teratology, and the real-world diseases portrayed in fairy tales. In addition to these rotating displays, a number of permanent exhibits are worth a look.
In 1874, the museum acquired a collection of 139 human skulls from Viennese anatomist Joseph Hyrtl. It is perhaps the most well-known exhibit in the museum, and the creepiest (in a morbidly fascinating kind of way). Each skull is mounted on a stand, and some are inscribed with information like age and cause of death. Hyrtl collected and studied skulls in order to show that cranial anatomy was varied among Caucasians in Europe. This helped to counter the claim at the time that anatomical differences were the result of racial differences.
The brain of one of the world’s greatest minds can be seen at only two places: Princeton Hospital and the Mütter Museum. Yet it can only be seen publicly at the Mütter. Albert Einstein’s family gave Dr. Thomas Harvey permission to keep the brain as long as it was used for scientific research. After dissecting the organ and creating slides of the brain tissue, Dr. Harvey donated the remained of Einstein’s brain to the pathology department at Princeton Hospital. The Mütter houses some brain sections that have been preserved in glass slides.
Benjamin Rush was a colonial Philadelphia doctor and signer of the Declaration of Independence who helped to found The College of Physicians of Philadelphia in 1787. Always encouraging his fellows to maintain a garden, the current space honors Dr. Rush’s commitment to medical plants. It contains over 60 kinds of herbs that are historically and contemporarily of medicinal value, with each labeled and explained. Benches and a towering magnolia tree offer a quiet space for visitors to relax and enjoy nature.