Mosaic Goes To The Mutter: IH Day At The Medical Museum

In addition to including innumerable objects of value to medical science in its collections, the Mutter Museum building is itself a National Historic Landmark, while also housing a Victorian period parlor that is one of the few areas of the galleries where visitors to the site are allowed to take pictures.

In addition to including innumerable objects of value to medical science in its collections, the Mutter Museum building is itself a National Historic Landmark, while also housing a Victorian period parlor that is one of the few areas of the galleries where visitors to the site are allowed to take pictures.

The Mutter (pronounced ‘Mooter’) Museum is not the only institution in America that possesses a piece of Einstein’s brain or houses an exhibit on the original Siamese Twins. It is only one of several museums worldwide to create a temporary display dedicated to the 500th birthday of Andreas Vesalius, the ‘Father of Modern Anatomy’, and is but one of several sites in Philadelphia to honor founding father, and ‘Father of America Psychiatry’, Dr. Benjamin Rush (though none as stimulating to the senses as the Mutter’s ‘Benjamin Rush Medicinal Plant Garden’). Moreover, the Mutter’s newest permanent exhibit (‘Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits: Injury, Death, and Healing in Civil War Philadelphia’) may oversaturate a regional heritage tourism market that already has a whole museum devoted to early 1860s medicine, although the accompanying nine-part on-site film series starring Museum Director Robert Hicks is very well done. The Mutter Museum is, however, the only place where you can find all these in one location, as I learned on a recent visit with my colleagues in the Temple University Intellectual Heritage Program.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, the most famous founder of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, makes his presence felt at the Mutter Museum not only with his portrait in the lobby of the building but also through the Medicinal Plant Garden named for him that today includes over sixty varieties of herbs.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, the most famous founder of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, makes his presence felt at the Mutter Museum, not only with his portrait in the lobby of the building but also through the Medicinal Plant Garden named for him that today includes over sixty varieties of herbs.

The name ‘Intellectual Heritage’ reflects the program’s long history; from what I’ve been told by colleagues who have taught in the program for decades, IH courses traditionally offered a more-or-less standard two-semester Great Books sequence before evolving into Mosaic classes seven-years ago. One of the coolest things about teaching Mosaic courses at Temple is that the IH leadership truly believes in the importance of education that goes on outside the classroom and therefore sponsors events such as a class trip to see Antigone at the Wilma Theater or a semester-long film series tied into the curriculum, which was revised again this spring so now each course includes seven books, several of which individual instructors have some choice over including one ‘stretch text’ which is completely their pick. My choice of ‘stretch text’, a book about North Korea, ended up working even better than I’d imagined in part due to the furor over the film The Interview that brought entertainment media attention to the rogue nation in the month before spring semester started (a process that may very well be repeating itself this week). Under this new curriculum the Mosaic II classes that I teach focus on Politics, Science, and Society (while the first half of the sequence now explores Literature, Philosophy, and Religion), which is why for me the Mutter was such a good choice to hold our orientation since they put science in a socio-political context. After several administrative announcements about workshops available to aid in improving professional pedagogy, another of the nice things about teaching in the IH program, we started the day-long seminar.

As part of the presentation on electricity, the Mutter Museum staff brought out artifacts for our group to explore in order to better ‘grasp’ the history that we were learning, such as this shock generating device (which required gloves to touch), and these images of its supposed medical benefits.

As part of the presentation on electricity, the Mutter Museum staff brought out artifacts for our group to explore in order to better ‘grasp’ the history that we were learning, such as this shock generating device (which required gloves to touch), and these images of its supposed medical benefits.

The AM session consisted of a talk on the uses of electricity in 19th century medicine (including tie-ins for those teaching Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein), for which Dr. Hicks donned a lab coat to regale us in character with seemingly outlandish but carefully cited statements on the medical magic of electricity. Though the talk wasn’t specifically geared in this way, I’m planning to introduce some of what I learned to highlight the many culturally contingent Paradigm Shifts, to borrow Thomas Kuhn’s terminology, that modern medicine has undergone over the last century. Dr. Hicks also discussed how Silas Weir Mitchell, the ‘Father of American Neurology’ and namesake of the enormous ballroom in which we were sitting, had used electrical equipment during the Civil War to discover what we today term phantom-limb pain (while noting that Mitchell is better known now as the man who first widely applied the term ‘hysteria’ to women in the later decades of the Victorian Era). This discussion provided a segue to our afternoon session, hosted by Mutter Museum Curator Anna Dhody, which could easily have been explicitly framed in terms of Mary Shelley’s own mother’s death while giving birth to her, since all sections of Mosaic II now read Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman. This last talk of the day focused on the decline of midwifery over the course of the 19th century due both to the ‘professionalization’ of medicine and, as Dhody asserted, from a desire of doctors to make more money (as Marx might argue).

More than three dozen Intellectual Heritage faculty gathered for the orientation, which included information about the Chamberlen family (inventors of precursors to the forceps on the right), who would blindfold birthing mothers in order to protect the secrets of their devices for over a century.

More than three dozen Intellectual Heritage faculty gathered for the orientation, which included information about the Chamberlen family (inventors of precursors to the forceps on the right), who would blindfold birthing mothers in order to protect the secrets of their devices for over a century.

Since Karl Marx is another author all Mosaic II instructors now cover, and in view of the ongoing debates over privately versus publicly funded healthcare, I look forward to discussing the complicated relationships between medical treatment and economics using these historical examples this semester. Moreover, this is just one illustration of the many possibilities for using integrated learning in my classes to contextualize science in socio-political terms: from juxtaposing Las Casas and Galileo as a way to talk about religion and science in light of the Papal trip to Philly (while making sure to allow time for this lab), to using Thucydides and Sun Tzu to illustrate deep-seated cultural differences in the science and politics of war, while still setting aside a day to explore organizational issues in warfare by playing human chess. Our day at the Mutter, as well as the tangible benefits of reading The Art of War for business majors and of studying the humanities for future scientists, all demonstrate the true value of these Mosaic courses, which also happen to rank consistently amongst Temple’s most technologically engaging classes overall.

About

Doctoral Student in American and Public History at Temple University. Currently holds a BA in History and Anthropology from the University of Virginia and a MA in American Studies from the University of Iowa. Adjunct Professor of Writing Arts at the Richard Stockton College of NJ and a Part Time Lecturer on Political Science with Rutgers-Camden. His research focuses on American Public Memory of the Korean War. Has guided tours for museums, trolleys, candy factories, and elephants.

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One comment on “Mosaic Goes To The Mutter: IH Day At The Medical Museum
  1. Ken Killian says:

    The Mutter Museum is a very interesting place that I used to go when I was a kid because my Mom is a buff for everything that has to do with abstract medical phenomenons and ancient tools and when I used to go I couldn’t really understand what was surrounding me. After reading this blog I want to go back and look at everything they have! I never knew they had the first set of Siamese twins! They must have been so shocked seeing that for the first time. Another thing that I found interesting while researching the Mutter is that Thomas Mutter started the Museum with his own 1700 piece collection and $30000 (which in 1863 was worth a lot more than it is today). Its amazing what one driven individual can create a place like this and for the College Of Physicians Of Philadelphia to keep adding to it. As I was looking around the internet to see exactly what kinds of exhibits I was missing out on as a kid I found one that I literally couldn’t believe; a book about 18th century pregnancy bound by human skin. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3QFIoCoy0M here is a video as I couldn’t get a picture onto here.) As gross as it may be, it definitely happened and made history that to this day is being examined by all who go in the Mutter. Overall, I think that the Mutter is a one-of-a-kind museum that exhibits things that other museums may think twice about having, and for that, we thank them.
    Ken Killian