Sunday, May 16, 2010

Bodies can tell such strange sad tales

This afternoon I visited the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

It's a fascinating and disturbing place, containing collections of preserved skeletons, tissues and organs (including a large number of diseased ones), a woman's adipoceric corpse (where the decomposing flesh had changed into a soap-like waxy substance, adipocere, that has kept the body intact), and also a number of fetuses in jars.

The fetuses were particularly poignant and wrenching to look at. Many of them had serious physiological defects of some kind. The first one I encountered was a fetus with anencephaly - absence of a forebrain (which includes the cerebral cortex), and with it a flat skull. It was inexplicably placed in a jar apart from the other fetuses - in a bottom corner next to a section of intestine. Its tongue was protruding slightly. I didn't find this horrifying, just very sad. Other fetuses included triplets, all sharing a jar. Others were conjoined twins. There were others, tiny and embedded in tissue, who had arisen from ectopic pregnancies, which develop outside of the uterus and the amniotic sac in places like the fallopian tubes. What I kept thinking was that all of these fetuses were displaced from a uterus; they were in fluid-filled jars instead, locked inside of cabinets. Unclaimed and nameless and lost along the way.

This statue is from the adjacent herb garden. It was refreshing to go there afterwards. Butterflies, birds, flowers and herbs, along with a circle of benches:

I jotted down some of the other things I saw:
- an exhibit on Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth (including thoracic tissue taken from Booth's body during his autopsy), and also a parallel exhibit of James Garfield and his assassin, Charles Guiteau, (and some preserved skin from Garfield, who with better medical care probably would have survived instead of experiencing a lingering painful descent into death).
- Dr. Politzer, the "father of otology", a man who did groundbreaking work on the ear
- suspended skeletons, some of them with obvious blunt trauma to their skulls or horrible curvature to the spine (as seen in Pott's Disease)
- various brains, from fish to human
- an enormous colon
- a small collection of body-related art, including one piece ("Hide" by Christina West), which is a sculpture of a nude woman, bent over, her hands against the wall (to see the sculpture's face you have to squat - if it even occurs to you to seek out her face).

There's a story for everyone and everything (down to the slightest bit of deviant tissue - it came from someone, under some set of circumstances).

Displayed in the museum, a quote by Thomas Hardy:

Why should a man's mind have been thrown into such close, sad, sensational, inexplicable relations with such a precarious object as his body?

We're frail. We know horror. We settle down and make our music anyway.


Crafty Green Poet said...

sounds like a very interesting museum - we have a very similar one in Edinburgh, the Surgeon's Hall Museum

I very much like the ending to your post

naida said...

I have a friend who went and she liked it. I dont think I could go, I have a weak stomach for stuff like that. It is fascinating though.
'Unclaimed and nameless and lost along the way'-so sad about the fetus display.

m. heart said...

Oooh, I have always wanted to visit this museum. Thanks for this little visit. Fascinating!

HKatz said...

"I very much like the ending to your post"
Thank you - I spotted that man afterwards, just playing to himself, and in part he inspired the words.

so sad about the fetus display.
I also remember thinking that, given all the possible false starts, it's wonderful (miraculous) that so many of us do get a chance out here in the world.

I have always wanted to visit this museum.
It really is a fascinating place; it's not a large museum either, so I felt I got to see (and sometimes really study) most of the exhibits.