I HAD THE Mutter Museum all wrong.

And I'd bet a jar of human skin - which is apparently stored somewhere inside the museum and smells like Romano cheese - that I'm not alone.

Ever since I moved to Philadelphia, the museum has always been a place that people have insisted was a must-see as they gleefully ticked off a long list of macabre displays: a two-headed baby floating in formaldehyde, the corpse of a woman called the "Soap Lady," diseased kidneys and livers and any number of anatomical medical oddities to make you go ewww.

Gee, I thought, where do I sign up?

I dutifully put the museum - in the College of Physicians of Philadelphia on 22nd Street near Ludlow in Center City - on my Philly Bucket List. But I always put it off. Why rush to a place that people kept telling me to visit on an empty stomach?

Then I read Philadelphia native Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz's biography, Dr. Mutter's Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine.

Long title for a book I found myself wishing were longer.

My verdict: We do the man, the museum and the city's extraordinary role in the innovation of modern medicine a serious disservice when we reduce the Mutter Museum to some freak show.

No doubt it's an odd place - one of the U.S.'s strangest museums, it's been called. Not gonna lie: I did not expect the dried penis.

But thanks to Aptowicz's book, even when I found myself gawking a beat too long at one gross nugget or another, my mind quickly turned to the man and mission behind a collection that was bequeathed to the college by an impressively forward-thinking teaching surgeon after his death in 1859.

Dr. Thomas Dent Mutter, described as the "Barnum of the surgery room," was a young, dapper American professor of surgery at Jefferson Medical College who pioneered the use of ether as anesthesia and the sterilization of surgical tools.

But more important in my book, Mutter was also as passionate about his field as he was about the severely deformed patients whom he treated with surgeries that became the precursors to modern plastic surgery.

He passed his skills and his compassion on to students who flocked to Philadelphia - a mecca for medical innovation! - including Francis West Lewis, who helped found the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

In addition to Mutter's mesmerizing story, Aptowicz also paints a fascinating picture of rivalries among doctors, some of whom openly mocked Mutter, and of the city itself, including Philly's enduring characteristic of not warming to outsiders easily.

In one passage to which I related as a relative newcomer, Aptowicz describes Mutter's frustration with trying to fit into Philly's established medical community.

She writes of his fight to be accepted: "How was it possible that he was able to endear himself to respectable figures in France, where haughtiness and disdain were almost an art form, and yet it was such a struggle here?"

The museum gets 142,000 visitors a year, mostly by word of mouth, according to communications director J Nathan Bazzel. Among the visitors this year was Mike Rowe, host of CNN's "Somebody's Gotta Do It," who visited the museum to help clean out a 9-foot colon. It once contained up to 40 pounds of fecal matter. That'll get people curious and through the museum doors, I'm sure.

But I'm glad I didn't "meet" Mutter until I read Aptowicz's book. Short of making the book mandatory reading (my suggestion), I asked Aptowicz how we should better describe the museum to get beyond the shock and ewww factor that doesn't take into account the wealth of medical history that still has much to teach us.

"The museum is a monument to how far we've come," Aptowicz said. (Remember: People once were awake while being operated on, and that included amputations.)

But Aptowicz also suggested the words of Gretchen Worden, the late longtime director of the museum:

"While these bodies may be ugly, there is a terrifying beauty in the spirits of those forced to endure these afflictions."

 

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