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Medical Oddities

Every few weeks we hold our collective breath and let The Savvy Traveler's Cash Peters take us on another Bad Taste Tour. Today he takes us to The Mutter Museum at the College of Physicians in Philadelphia, where some of the exhibits...well...they're probably better heard about than actually seen.

Bad Taste Tour: Medical Oddities
by Cash Peters

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Believe me, nothing I could tell you about the Mutter Museum will really prepare you for what it's like when you get there.

Dick: "You can see things at the College of Physicians that you won't see anywhere else in the world, including a whole lot of things people have swallowed and had surgically removed from their stomachs."

Huh, that's worth the entrance fee right there. Basically, it's...oh, that was Dick Levinson, their PR guy, by the way...basically, this is a research museum devoted to illness and deformity. The main section features huge glass cabinets filled with things you'll never want to see again: a baby with two heads, monkey organs, skeletons that still look kinda gooey -- even Sigourney Weaver would have nightmares. Gretchen Worden runs the place and she broke my spirit quite early on, with a gangrenous arm in a jar.

Soap person

Gretchen: "This is one of Dr. Mutter's original specimens. It's so beautifully preserved in its original alcohol."

Cash: "Oh, and it has a glove on."

Gretchen: "No, that's the skin sloughing off."

Cash: "Move on, move on, woman. Already I've seen enough."

Dr. Thomas Mutter began collecting this stuff a century or so ago so that students and visitors could experience medical conditions first-hand -- it was a major breakthrough in its day. A medical condition I experienced first-hand was nausea. Just the sight of burst stomachs, a pig with one eye, Siamese twin babies with three legs...Andrea Kenyon is one of the administrators.

Andrea: "I think the museum engages people in understanding the human body in different ways than one would learn from a text book or from reading a newspaper. You go out educated. It's a sneaky way of doing that."

Cash: "So...I'm going to throw up, I'm not going to throw up...?"

Gretchen: "You must decide for yourself."

Cash: "Go -- bring me a bucket."

Gretchen: "I don't think you're going to need a bucket."

Cash: "I'm going to stand behind you now. That thing in the cabinet, what the hell is that?"

Gretchen: "Where?"

Cash: "I'm standing behind you, don't move. I'm pointing at it. That thing with the great lump on its face."

Soap person

Gretchen: "It's a tumor of the face, actually."

Cash: "My God, and what's that next to it with the tongue hanging out?"

Gretchen: "That man doesn't have a lower jaw. We can now do amazing reconstructions"

Cash: "I can't tell you how much I hate that. [Laughs] This is going to get worse before it gets better."

I was right, it did. To be fair, the displays are beautifully and lovingly set out, and done with all the right intentions, but it still has a kind of indefinable "Oh my God" quality. I get hot and dizzy even now. Maybe they should stick up a warning sign outside.

Andrea: "Should we have a sign like Disney has for its rides? 'Any who feels a little queasy shouldn't come in'?"

Cash: "Absolutely."

Andrea: It makes it all much more intriguing when they see signs. People want to be challenged in that kind of way."

Cash: "The sign could say, 'This will make you ill.'"

Andrea: "A big sign: Hazardous to your health" LAUGH

Cash: "My God, this is horrible. I'm feeling faint."

Gretchen: "Okay, then, look in this drawer. This is a series of dental objects."

Cash: "And this is supposed to cheer me up?"

Her: "It's wonderful. A collection of objects swallowed and inhaled. Items people got stuck in their throats and lungs. Loose teeth, dentures..."

Oh, enough already. I'm sorry, it's all too much. I have a pathological fear of anything pathological, I decided. But that's just me. The Mutter Museum is actually very popular, especially with medical students.

Medical Student: "I think it's very interesting."

Cash: "But not gross?"

Medical Student: "It is disgusting, but it doesn't make me physically ill or disturb me."

Cash: "On a scale of 1 to 10, how horrified are you?"

Second Medical Student: "Two."

Cash: "I nearly fainted."

Soap person

Second Medical Student: "Oh no. It didn't gross me out."

Cash: "I'm more of a woman than you are."

Second Medical Student: "Possibly."

Cash: "You're not the first person to have said that." [Laughter]

Dick: "When you go into that museum the story you see is about you. You're looking at your own story. Medical museums are different from any other kind of institution"

They sure are. Anyway, as well as the main gallery, there's an entire room devoted to emerging infectious diseases, which I ran through at a speed athletes win bronze medals for; plus constantly changing displays, a library, and part of a Saturn 5 rocket. Well, I thought it was a Saturn 5 rocket. Turned out to be an iron lung. The whole place is totally bizarre and I urge you to go. All you need is $8, a healthy curiosity, and perhaps a handful of tranquilizers.

Gretchen: "They will see things here that they won't see anywhere else. It's genuine. We're not there to fool people, this is what really happens.

Cash: "I genuinely feel nauseous."

Gretchen: "That's an honest reaction. Most people come here and are fascinated."

Cash: "Maybe I'm too feeling. Too caring."

Gretchen: "You're entirely too sensitive. I hope you enjoyed your visit."

Cash: "I'm having trouble putting my thoughts into words, but enjoyment would not be one of them."

At the Mutter Museum in the College of Physicians, Philadelphia, I'm Cash Peters for The Savvy Traveler.

Savvy Resources for the Mutter Museum:

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