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

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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