Artful Science is back to regularly scheduled programming!
One of the quirkiest parts of my sabbatical last fall in Philadelphia was discovering the Mütter, a delightfully macabre museum packed with all manner of medical oddities carefully arranged in a 19th century parlor room style setting.
By medical oddities, I mean a wall of human skulls from around the world, slices of Albert Einstein’s brain, a cast of the conjoined twins Cheng and Eng, floating body parts exhibiting gangrene and other diseases, as well as the museum’s pièce de résistance, the cadaver of an obese woman who turned into a giant piece of soap instead of degrading like deceased bodies normally do.
This collection sounds like it could be the basis for a 19th century travelling freak show but instead the medical artifacts are respectfully displayed–and they are also being used to advance current medical research. (This latter point is perhaps not so surprising since the museum is under the purview of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the U.S.’s oldest professional medical association.)
For example, because the museum coffers contain diseased tissue samples dating back two centuries, the Mütter was able to provide infectious disease scientists from Canada with samples of cholera DNA from the 19th century.
“They turned one of our back rooms into a clean room,” says Anna Dhody, the Mütter Museum’s curator. Then they put on white jumpsuits and masks and extracted samples from three intestines of people who died of cholera over a hundred years ago, she says.
The researchers sequenced the old cholera DNA and compared it to the deadly pathogen’s modern day genome. By studying how cholera evolves over time, scientists may be able to predict how the pathogen will evolve in the future—and this may permit researchers to develop ways to thwart its spread.
The museum also contains a plethora of examples of human developmental disease, from birth defects to bone disorders. One compelling example is the skeleton of a man with an ailment called Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva, a rare disease in which a person’s connective tissue, muscle and ligaments turn slowly in to bone. This usually begins before the age of 10.
There are only about 700 people in the world with this disease and many diagnostic procedures on patients with FOP accelerate the disease’s progression.
It’s a Catch-22 that the Mütter’s FOP skeleton is helping researchers escape, says Robert Hicks, the museum’s director, during a tour in December.
The Mütter gives medical researchers and doctors access to the fragile skeleton to help them understand exactly how the soft tissue eventually turns into bone. In fact, one of these doctors is Frederick Kaplan, who works just across town at the University of Pennsylvania, and is one of the world’s experts in FOP. (His team sequenced the gene responsible for the disease.)
One of the largest displays at the Mütter is a wall of 139 skulls from people around the world who lived in the 1800s. This particularly morbid display was the personal collection of a 19th century Austrian anatomist named Josef Hyrtl.
Some of the skulls may have a dark past, Hicks says, (many early anatomists commonly bought bodies from grave robbers), but now the collection is being used for good.
For example, CT scans were taken of the skulls to get precise measurements of the variable contours of the human head. Information from the scans is stored in a large forensic anthropology database. When mass graves full of unidentified bodies are found, researchers can turn to such databases to figure out the likely geographic and/or racial origin of the victims. In fact, the Mütter’s skull collection was used to identify the origin of people from mass graves found subsequent to the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, Hicks says.
After the tour, I came back and spent nearly an hour staring at these skulls. Besides being a powerful display of human variability, each specimen had flashcard about the person who once inhabited the skull–the “antemortem” information in museum speak.
Sometimes the details were few: shoemaker, guerilla, Calvinist. Sometimes you learnt that the person had taken their own life over the suspected infidelities of a loved one, or from a disease we now cure easily.
To me it was an important reminder that every medical sample, sitting on current lab benches or on display in museums, comes from a real person, with a life history of their own.