However Human I am Allowed to Be

– by Wood Institute travel grantee Erin Solomons*


In November 2016, I visited the College of the Physicians of Philadelphia, under a travel grant from the F.C. Wood Institute. Over the past year and a half, I have been pursuing a practice-based MPhil/PhD in Photography in the United Kingdom. This means that I use the creation of artwork and traditional research methods to critically assess my area of interest. Prior to enrolling in the program, my art practice used raw materials and photography to investigate mental health, trauma, and American identity. My work has reflected the boundaries between the human body and intrusive interactions upon it.

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Imperfecta: Fear, wonder, and science

On March 9, 2017, Imperfecta opens in the Mütter Museum, an exhibit curated by the staff of the Historical Medical Library, which will examine in text, image, and specimen how fear, wonder, and science shaped the understanding of abnormal human development.

One facet of this story is how people, laymen and scientists, reacted to new information in a time of discovery and upheaval.  Steve Desch, an astrophysicist from the University of Arizona, said, “Humans have a strong instinct to ignore scientific findings, until those discoveries challenge the stories we tell each other about ourselves.”  This tendency to ignore earth-shattering discoveries that fundamentally change how humans see themselves is a behavior that is as old as human existence itself.  Read more

Collections of Stones, Collections of Ideas

– by Wood Institute travel grantee Dr. Edward Allen Driggers*

Historians take for granted the ways in which the profession produces knowledge. Usually historians construct a question from the historiography or primary sources that they encounter. I think occasionally, though, Clio speaks and we are inspired. I recently completed one of the most dynamic years of my life: my daughter was born into the world, I completed my Ph.D. in the history of science, and I completed my first year on faculty in the history department at Tennessee Technological University. My recent research trip to the Historical Medical Library at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia did the same thing for me that it did in 2014 under my first Wood Institute travel grant: it allowed me to be quiet and let the muse speak. It was inspiring.

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From ‘Bicephalic Monsters’ to ‘Brains of the Insane’: How Anatomists Built Evolutionary Hierarchies

-by Wood Institute travel grantee Trevor Engel*

Museum catalog
“Presented by Dr. Corse.” Page from the Catalogue of the Mütter Museum, Volume 1 (CPP 7/002-01). 1884.

As a freshman in college who enjoyed collecting dead things—skulls, bones, taxidermy, wet preserved animals, among other things—I always hoped that I would have the chance to visit the Mütter Museum at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. I’ve long been fascinated by death, so the Mütter seemed to be a place I just had to visit. But never did I imagine myself in the College’s Historical Medical Library poring through the original handwritten catalog and countless other nineteenth-century documents, analyzing the language used to describe “monsters,” and investigating how anatomists procured the bodies and body parts of people we might now call “disabled.” What made it possible for me to finally visit the Mütter, however, had nothing to do with my passion for collecting dead animals, but rather the field in which I am specializing: disability history. This relatively new field investigates the experiences of disabled people and also explores “disability” and “the normal” as social, political, and cultural categories in historical context.

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