A Visit to the Mütter Museum

Mr Pict’s parents flew over the Atlantic to stay with us during the festive season.  As such, we had the opportunity for some babysitting so we left the kids with the grandparents so that we could head into Philadelphia for the day.  Time alone together as a couple is incredibly rare so what did we do with this brief period of child-free time?  We went to the Mütter Museum to look at medical specimens.  Ah the romance!

I have wanted to visit the Mütter Museum since we emigrated to the Philly area just over three years ago.  However, not being certain of how child-friendly it was, we had not been in a position to go.  I am definitely much more into medical oddities than Mr Pict is but he was happy to accompany me to the Museum and check it out.

The Mütter Museum is actually part of the College of Physicians and the original collection was compiled and donated by Dr Thomas Dent Mütter in order to serve as an education tool.  The collection is absolutely vast and apparently only 13% of it is on display at any one time.  This is no doubt in part because the building is actually pretty small by Museum standards.  One exhibition space is essentially just the mezzanine around a staircase, for instance.  For obvious reasons – these exhibits being the remains of individual human beings – photography is not permitted within the galleries.  I, therefore, decided I would take a sketchbook, pencil and fountain pen along with me so I sketched (which is permitted) as I wandered around.  The cramped spaces and the fact that the Museum was so busy made drawing quite awkward, primarily because I found it hard to find a spot that allowed me a good enough view to draw a specimen while not obscuring the views of others but also because ever so often people would gather around me to see what I was drawing and made me feel self-conscious since I was only rattling off rapid sketches.

2016-12-28 11.00.53

We started off on the aforementioned mezzanine level.  This was organised on a sort of Brothers Grimm theme, connecting medical conditions to some of the grotesque elements of their stories.  I thought that was quite an unexpected and interesting theme on which to curate the collection.  There were lots of desiccated limbs and the occasional head.  We read about dry samples – useful because medical students could actually handle them and information, things like blood vessels, could be written or drawn on them – and wet samples, the type stored in jars of liquid.  In addition to the actual human remains, there were casts and wax models of other medical anomalies.  Strangely enough, because these actually looked more human, given they were neither shrivelled or bloated by the preservation techniques, they were more disconcerting to look at than the actual human remains.  Probably the star attraction on this level were the slides of tissue taken from Einstein’s brain.  For me, the most interesting part of that particular exhibit wasn’t the tiny slivers of grey matter but the fact it highlighted the ethics of taking and keeping samples of human tissue.  Neither Einstein nor his next of kin had consented to having his brain removed and studied which means that ownership of any of his brain tissue surely violates moral codes if not medical ethics.  The case of Einstein’s brain is particularly captivating of course because of his fame and the fact his death was relatively recent.  The same moral debate, however, could be applied to probably the majority of specimens held by the Mütter Museum.  I very much doubt that most of the people whose bodies or parts are on display consented to be used for medical science and education.  This moral quandary added another layer of interest and engagement to our visit.

2016-12-28 17.21.46

Probably the most arresting display – for me at least – in the whole museum was a cabinet, the length of one wall, of scores of skulls.  Arranged in serried rows in glass cabinets, these skulls were the collection of Joseph Hyrtl, an anatomist from Vienna.  Apparently the idea of the collection was to demonstrate the variety evidenced in European anatomy, not eugenics or phrenology, and as such each skull was labelled to identify its origin.  What was disconcerting and somewhat unsettling about these labels was that it gave not just the nationality of the individual but in most cases their name, age, and cause of death.  It was impossible not to think of the lives behind these skulls, the stories that led to their deaths, the loved ones they left behind to mourn them.  In many cases, the deaths were violent ones – either execution or suicide – and so the tragedy was amplified.  There were teenagers, for example, who had committed suicide when they were discovered to have committed a theft and I found myself wondering what desperate straits had motivated the crime and what awful crises they must have experienced to feel that the only solution was death.  I found I could not just gloss over any single skull.  Each of them represented an individual person and I felt this quite powerful obligation to pay my respects to each of them, to acknowledge that each had existed.  It was weirdly emotive and I find it quite difficult to convey that mixture of fascination and poignancy.

Given he is a Civil War nerd, Mr Pict enjoyed a gallery devoted to the effects of that bloody conflict on human anatomy.  There were the famous photographs of skeletal remains being exhumed from battlefields in order to be interred in cemeteries and the photographs of legs and arms in the baskets of field hospitals but there were also bones containing bullets and shrapnel, intestines scarred from dysentery and preserved organs ravaged with other diseases that felled many soldiers.  The Mütter Museum houses a vast collection of books so another exhibition was dedicated to Vesalius, whose writings and drawings became some of the earliest medical textbooks.

The basement floor of the Museum is really where most of the “oddities” are.  This is the area of the museum that is really devoted to rare medical anomalies most of us won’t encounter in our lifetimes either because they are so rare or because medical advances would either prevent the conditions or would at least make them treatable.  Most challenging for Mr Pict and I were all the specimens of babies, both fetuses and newborns.  I imagine very few people would be unmoved by these tiny little bodies in jars or otherwise preserved.  However, because we have experienced pregnancy loss and had a stillborn son, these particular specimens were even more emotive for us and stirred up trauma and grief.  Mr Pict found it too difficult to spend much time in that area of the museum.  I found I could compartmentalise enough to have a read and a look and I even drew one of the conjoined twin skeletons.  It was definitely the most difficult part of the museum, however.

2016-12-28 17.22.21

I have an interest in the history of freakshows.  Among the most famous “freaks” were the conjoined twins, Chang and Eng Bunker whose origins in what is now Thailand originated the term “Siamese Twins”.  The Mütter Museum possesses a death cast of Chang and Eng’s heads and torsos and their conjoined liver because the College of Physicians conducted the autopsy when the men died in the 1870s.  Those were interesting to see since I have read so much about Chang and Eng.  There were also some fascinating osteological specimens.  These include the tallest skeleton on exhibit in America, that of a man who stood at 7’6″ tall.  His remains were contrasted with those of a dwarf who had died in childbirth.  There is also the skeleton of a man named Harry Eastlack who succumbed to a condition called FOP which caused all of his issues to ossify.  He had actually donated his body to the collection to aid research into his medical condition and potentially benefit others.

2016-12-28 17.22.10

Mr Pict and I both found at least one thing each in the Mütter Museum that made us squeamish.  In common with many of the male visitors, the genital specimens made Mr Pict feel a little uncomfortable.  Among these was a plaster cast of a hugely swollen scrotum.  Every man I observed looking into that particular case appeared to wince.  For me it was the eyeballs.  One glass case contained row upon row of wax models of eyes suffering from various maladies, diseases and injuries.  Not much about the human body makes me squirm but I definitely do not like anything to do with eyeballs.  The last time I was prescribed eyedrops, all four children had to pin me down while Mr Pict dripped them into my eyes.  That is how much I detest anything to do with eyeballs.  I definitely felt decidedly queasy looking at all of those eyeballs.

Our trip to Philadelphia was not all body parts, however.  After our excursion to the Mütter Museum, we were (maybe somewhat peculiarly) ravenous so we went for lunch in a Mexican restaurant.  It was a definite treat to eat a delicious lunch without having to wrangle kids.  Great food while relaxing with wonderful company – uninterrupted – was the perfect end to a lovely and fascinating day out.

2016-12-28 10.56.46

Medical Practice

Today was another first for me: my first time registering with and visiting an American medical practice.

Unfortunately, I have had cause to visit an American A&E / ER before.  Back in 1995, I developed a severe cellulitis reaction to some insect bites and developed blood poisoning and had to go to hospital.  That travel insurance was definitely worth the investment, that’s for sure.  That had been my sole interaction with the US medical healthcare system until today.

Obviously we needed to register with a medical practice anyway.  With six of us – and especially four kids – it is always sensible to know where you need to go when some illness develops or some sort of accident happens.  However, today’s appointment was not about illness or aching body parts.  Today it was just about filling out yet more forms to get my husband and I a step closer to holding PA driving licenses.  We needed to have formal medicals, signed by a medical practitioner, to prove that we were fit and healthy enough to even obtain the learner’s permit.

There is a long list of things I don’t know about living in America but if I had to rank those things in order of things I am most ignorant about then healthcare would have to be top of the list.  I just don’t get it.  Obviously I’ve not been living in a dank cave all these years so I know that there is a requirement for medical insurance, that medical visits and treatments are paid for by the patient directly and per use rather than through general central taxation.  The way that system operates, however, is a complete and utter mystery to me.  My husband has family medical insurance through his employer so the little plastic card he handed me is my portal to receiving medical care here in the US.  That is pretty much the extent of my knowledge.

Even booking the appointment was farcical.  The person who answered the phone could not understand why I didn’t know how things worked so every question I asked just threw her.  Eventually curiosity got the better of her and she asked how healthcare worked in the UK.  Her mind was blown.  Blown completely.  I am not a patriotic soul but if I had to name something that could possibly make me feel a tingle of pride in being British (and I do mean British as opposed to Scottish on this occasion) then the National Health Service would be the thing that sprang to mind.  A healthcare system that is centrally funded through general taxation and is free at the point of need is, I think, one of the best achievements of the UK.  It has its failings, of course, as every system does, but to know that everyone will receive the same care regardless of their income level or some other means test is, to my mind, a wonderful thing.  I think it finally clicked with the admin person making the appointment that the reason I had not a clue how the insurance system worked was because I had never had to even countenance how I was going to fund medical treatment before.  In Scotland, even prescriptions and eye tests are free.

My appointment was 10.40 and Mr Pict had his appointment right after me at 11.  My husband was off work today because I had parent-teacher conferences in the afternoon to attend, so he was needed at home to provide the childcare, so we thought it made sense to use the morning productively and achieve something we were needing to progress with – namely obtaining driving licenses.  I had agreed that we would come early so as to fill out the paperwork we needed in order to register, though I had downloaded and filled out the medical history form in advance.  So we provided our contact details and our insurance details and were instructed to wait to be called to our appointments.

Time passed.

More time passed.

Now here’s the thing.  If I am paying for something, I expect a certain level of service.  Conversely, if something is free then I will make some concessions.  So, while tardiness in doctors’ surgeries had always frustrated me in the past, this waiting was not just tedious and wasteful but was actually irksome.

Eventually an hour passed and neither my husband or I had been called to our appointments and we had a preschooler to collect from nursery.  So Mr Pict and I switched appointments so that I could nip off and collect our youngest child from preschool and then return.  He was being called just as I left.  When I returned, almost half an hour later, he had only just finished up.  I let the receptionist know that I was back and had thankfully just a short wait before being called.  That said, time was getting tight for collecting our older children from school – as they were on an early finish – so I left Mr Pict with the car keys just in case.

I was taken to a room where I had to answer a series of questions, some so complex and precise it was difficult to provide an accurate answer, about my health, medical history and lifestyle.  All of the answers I had already furnished them with on my medical history form incidentally.  I had my height and weight recorded, had to provide a urine sample, had my blood pressure taken, had my eyesight tested and my eyes, ears, neck and abdomen all checked.  All of which took even more time.  Back in July, the children and I had had to undergo pretty intense medicals at a clinic in London as part of the immigration process.  We were all healthy and disease free hence we were permitted to enter America as legal permanent residents.  Apparently this medical was good enough to assess our suitability to be resident in America but was not good enough to be an indicator of my ability to get behind the wheel of a car.  It’s frustrating to have to do the same things over and over just to prove things to different administrative organisations, never more so than when time is ticking away and you have places you urgently need to be.  

From the time when I first walked through the door of the medical practice to when I left with my signed piece of paper telling the DMV it was OK to issue me with a learner’s permit took two hours.  Two.   Hours.  Now the NHS is a socialist institution so it is often attacked by people who are not proponents of that political system and, yes, it can be inefficient and flawed.  However, my first experience of privately funded medicine was not exactly convincing me of its benefits.  Perhaps all medical services are inefficient and flawed because, let’s face it, healthcare is as unpredictable at times as health is.  But it’s hard not to resent paying for something as pointless as this medical was and then having to waste two hours of your life obtaining a signed piece of paper.  Between the financial and time cost, that’s definitely some motivation to stay healthy.

At least now, however, Mr Pict can go ahead and obtain a learner’s permit.  I, on the other hand, have some more hoops to jump through since, as a non-citizen, I need a whole heap of paperwork that I don’t yet possess.  Any progress I make here is always tempered by delays and obstacles and bureaucracy.