The Mütter Museum is
named for Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter (1811-1859), who in 1856 offered his collection of medical specimens and models to the College of Physicians of
Philadelphia (CPP). Mütter described the College as the “body best qualified by the character of its members and the nature
of its pursuits for undertaking the trust.”¹ The institution was founded in 1787 by two dozen eminent
Philadelphia physicians — among the foremost being Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
The express purpose of this body was “to advance the Science of Medicine and to thereby lessen human misery…”
and to encourage “order and uniformity in the practice of Physick.”²
Thomas Dent Mütter was born 9 March 1811 in Richmond, Virginia. Mütter attended Virginia's Hampden-Sidney College
before entering the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine, from which he graduated in 1831. He was known around
Philadelphia as a flamboyant character, prone to driving about town in an audacious carriage and attended by a servant in full
livery attire. Mütter was described thusly by one of his contemporaries:
“In his dress he was the pink of neatness; and there was that dash, enthusiasm, earnestness, and action about him which
never fail to elicit attention and create popularity… [Mütter] was all things to all men, not unfrequently at the expense of other persons' comfort and convenience.”³
Along with the ego, Dr. Mütter earned a reputation as a gifted surgeon and lecturer. His skills in both pursuits were held in such high regard that he was offered the
chair of Surgery at Jefferson Medical College in 1841. Mütter held that position until 1856, when he retired due to poor health — perhaps a worsening of the gout that had allegedly plagued him for many years.
It was on May 20th of that year that Dr. Mütter offered to bequeath his collection to the College of Physicians. The offer included a $30,000 endowment to pay the salaries of a curator and lecturer, and fund the care and
future expansion of the collection. Before the CPP could take ownership of the collection, Mütter stipulated that they must construct a fire-proof building to house it. This appealed to the College, which had been
renting its lodgings and desired a suitable location for its meetings and to house their growing library. An agreement was signed in 1859 — two months before Dr. Mütter died — and the collection placed in its new home in 1863.
The 1,344 items from Dr. Mütter — wet and dry preparations, wax models, plaster casts, and illustrations — were added to the 92 pathological specimens collected between 1849 and 1852 by Dr. Isaac Parish. Over the years,
the Mütter Museum continued to grow through purchases and donations. In 1871, the Museum began collecting out-dated medical equipment, including Benjamin Rush's medicine chest and the sewing kit of Florence Nightingale.
Three years later the Mütter Museum had a banner year: in 1874 they acquired not only the conjoined livers and plaster death cast of Chang & Eng Bunker, the original Siamese Twins, following their autopsy at CPP; but also finalized
the purchase of 100 human skulls from Austrian anatomist and phrenology debunker Joseph Hyrtl; and received the early 19th-century corpse of the Soap Lady, whose fatty tissues decomposed into stable — but latherable — adipocere.
Another major acquisition occurred in 1877, with the purchase of the 7-foot 6-inch skeleton of a Kentucky giant.4
Such impressive growth in the collections required larger quarters. In 1908, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia began construction of the handsome building it now occupies on 22nd Street.
Today, the collection contains more than 20,000 objects. The Mütter Museum celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2009.
- ¹ “Detailed Museum History”, www.collphyphil.org
- ² “Detailed History of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia”, www.collphyphil.org
- ³ Samuel D. Gross, Autobiography of Samuel D. Gross, M.D., volume 2, Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 1898
- 4 Gretchen Worden, “Pathological Treasures of the Mütter Museum”, Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, New York: Blast Books, 2002