The Mutter Medical Museum


The College of Physicians of Philadelphia began collecting materials for a museum of pathological anatomy in 1849. In 1856, Dr. Thomas Dent Mutter, in poor health and intending to retire from teaching, offered the museum the contents of his personal collection of “bones, wet specimens, plaster casts, wax and papier-mâché models, dried preparations, and medical illustrations.” In addition, Dr. Mutter offered the College of Physicians a $30,000 endowment to pay for the administrative costs of running a museum. Dr. Mutter’s collection was added to the materials collected by the college since 1849 and the Mutter medical museum was born.

Mutter’s endowment facilitated the purchase of additional collections in Europe, and as students from the college “contributed interesting surgical and post-mortem specimens acquired from their hospital and private practice,” the museum’s collection grew. The College decided in 1871 to start collecting old-fashioned medical tools in an effort to document the “changes in the technology of medicine and memorabilia of present and past practitioners.” The majority of the museum’s contemporary acquisitions are of this type.

As the museum’s holdings continued to increase, a larger building was required. Construction began on a new space in 1908. Although the building itself boasted elegant marble and carved oak details, the medical exhibits still resembled “the utilitarian medical museums typical of 18th century hospitals and medical schools,” which “illustrated the fact that the museum’s purpose lay not in the decorative display of selected artifacts, but in the organized assemblage of teaching materials which were to be available to the student or researcher as were books on a library shelf.” In 1986, a major renovation of the museum’s exhibit areas modernized the shelving and lighting, presumably altering the nostalgic atmosphere.

Although I am unsure whether or not Walt Whitman visited the Mutter Museum, I am interested in exploring Whitman’s views and experiences with medicine. In particular, I am interested in the time Whitman spent nursing wounded soldiers during the Civil War. According to Reynolds, Whitman saw himself as a healer, and he had a severe distrust of medical doctors. Nursing the soldiers “intensified his distaste for conventional medicine and permitted him to test out his homespun ideas about healing” (430). The war doctors were overwhelmed with injured soldiers, and they were forced to perform surgeries with inadequate equipment and ineffective painkillers. This was a time when “medicine was still primitive,” and though Whitman “sympathized with the overworked war doctors, he recognized their limitations and believed that his own magnetic powers were as effective as all their procedures” (431). Many of Whitman’s “homespun ideas” were based on building interpersonal relationships with the soldiers. Whitman devoted a considerable amount of time to talking to the soldiers, reading to the soldiers, and helping them to write letters. Reynolds notes that: “to the end of his life Whitman would look upon regular doctors and their drugs with suspicion” (332).

According to its website, the Mutter Museum has “specimens and photographs of battle injuries” from the Civil War within its collection. These artifacts were acquired from the Army Medical Museum “in exchange for duplicate material from the Mutter to be used for the training of army surgeons.” If Whitman were to visit the Mutter, I would venture to guess that this exhibit would be of special interest to him.

Please click on the link below to see some of the Mutter Museum’s current holdings. These photos are not for the faint of heart!…

Works Cited:
History of the Mutter Medical Museum adapted from:…

Information on Walt Whitman’s views on medicine taken from:
Reynolds, David. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Vintage, 1995. Print.

Lead Image provided by:…

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