Little house of medical horrors

The M

Published April 10, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

There it was, staring at me out of a jar, the subject of one of the great presidential prevarications. No, it wasn't a Watergate smoking gun or even a Clintonian cigar. Just the cancerous growth taken out of Grover Cleveland's jawbone on July 1, 1893.

Back then, Cleveland had just been elected to his second, albeit nonconsecutive, term mostly because he wanted to make sure the country stayed on the gold standard. His vice president, Adlai Stevenson, was a silver man. So when doctors found Cleveland's cancer, they took him out on a yacht on Long Island Sound and told everyone he had a toothache -- just so Stevenson wouldn't seize power because of a medical emergency.

The ruse went undiscovered until 24 years later, when Dr. W.W. Keen, a Philadelphia doctor who had been on the surgical team, produced the tumor and told the dirty cancerous secret.

The jellied little Cleveland tumor is but one of a veritable midway of medical oddities and artifacts at the M|tter Museum,, a gothic little joint housed in the otherwise august American College of Physicians at a busy commercial corner in Center City Philadelphia.

With its walls of skulls and cabinets of distended fetuses -- not to mention the 3-foot-wide piece of colon and the 8-inch-long human horn taken off a 70-year-old woman -- the M|tter is what you might get if you crossbred C. Everett Koop with Charles Addams. Being squeamish, I'd always avoided the place like the plague but now as middle age set in, I decided it was time for a visit. Maybe growing old was compelling me to pay homage to the magic of medicine. Or maybe I just wanted to see bodies that looked worse than me.

Located in an impressive brick building at 22nd and Chestnut streets, the American College of Physicians is a research and professional society founded by among others, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Edward Shippen, a Philadelphia businessman and father-in-law of traitor Benedict Arnold. About 100 years ago, Thomas M|tter, a local physician and historian, donated his medical collection to the college, which decided to add what they could to it and put it on display.

In an introductory display named "Emerging Infectious Diseases," the museum eases you in with blowup photos of bacteria. There's the gelatinous, earthwormy salmonella; the bright red with yellow and green-blue outlines of adenovirus; and the peppy red blotches and purple spots of our old buddy staphylococcus.

From there, the displays grow increasingly gruesome and visceral. The uplifting photos of a Victorian girl with ringworm all over her face, heroin addicts shooting up and African babies with smallpox prepares you for the real-life historical displays. There are tibias rotted by syphilis, an 1868 slide with tuberculosis on it and 19th century sputum cups for viral disease patients.

Beyond a little semi-interactive room with a local angle -- plagues that hit Philadelphia -- is the great room of the permanent collection. There the presidential display offers a terrible advertisement for medicine's past achievements. We find there that George Washington's doctors probably killed him by leeching his blood; that James Garfield's doctors probably killed him by probing his bullet wound with barely washed instruments; and that William McKinley's doctors probably killed him by not trying to take the assassin's bullet out of him soon enough. Finally we are introduced to Janet G. Travell, the first female White House doctor, who was complicit in keeping the public from knowing about JFK's semi-paralyzing Addison's disease.

In the special presentation on co-joined (or "Siamese") twins we learn that former surgeon general Koop, who was then head of Children's Hospital in Philadelphia, had become famous for separating twin girls from the Dominican Republic. Before Koop, the big names in the co-joined world were Chang and Eng, the 19th century Siamese men joined at the lower chest, where they shared a liver. When they died -- having had 21 children, each by his own wife -- a team of College of Physicians doctors sped down to North Carolina to do the autopsy. They brought back to the M|tter the upper-torsos-and-heads death cast, which is displayed in its own beautiful glass and wood case.

The plaster Chang and Eng are actually a pleasant diversion from what I found displayed behind them. There were pickled animal brains, arranged in their order of size (frog, rat, ferret, opossum, gibbon, cat, dog, baboon, orangutan, human) as well as a motley array of embalmed fetuses, skeletons and the Hyrtl Skull Collection. Although Dr. Joseph Hyrtl collected the skulls to prove his theories of racial superiority, in the end he had little but the skulls, so the M|tter took them. There they are, about 100 of them, in neat rows behind a glass case, for your perusal.

With growing anxiety, I looked past the plastic casts showing tubercular scars to the human facial horns and beyond to the 3-foot-wide colon, spread out like a Jewish High Holy Days shofar on steroids. Nearby stood a bell jar of urinary calculi -- kidney stones and the like -- collected over a lifetime of surgery by Dr. G.N.J. Sumner of Trenton, N.J. It struck me that this collection of medical wonders was making me ill. As wonderful as medicine is when it works on our bodies, its artifacts cannot help but remind us of the bodily horrors that surely await us.

I turned a corner and was finally freaked out. There lay a charred, naturally embalmed body of "the fat lady," found entombed at Fourth and Race streets in a nearby part of Philadelphia, apparently killed by the great yellow fever epidemic of 1792-93.

I made a beeline for the front door. The guard called behind me, "Be sure to see the medicinal plant garden. It's a really placid place."

"Yeah, sure," I said as I escaped into rush-hour traffic, happy to return to a world of living, if tense, bodies.

By Robert Strauss

Robert Strauss' articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Saveur, the San Francisco Examiner and the Los Angeles Times. He is also the author of more than four dozen television documentaries. He lives with his family in San Francisco.

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