GeekCLE Science Monday is a regular feature exploring the relationship between science and geek culture.
Tucked away on a quiet street, in a city pockmarked by history, is the home of our nation’s most famous medical oddities museum. Floor-to-ceiling glass cabinets house thousands of anatomical specimens: delicate, disfigured fetal skeletons, leg bones scarred by tumors, organs swollen with disease, there’s even a slice of Einstein’s brain. On the lower level, visitors can open drawer after drawer, containing rows of pins, buttons, coins and other objects that were accidently swallowed and subsequently recovered over the course of a single physician’s career.
Surrounded by the exclamations of disgust and disbelief from visitors, it could be easy to see only the grotesque at the Mütter Museum in the heart of Philadelphia. However, despite the gruesome nature of many of the displays, this collection is a testament to the resilience and wonder of the human body. The sheer number of specimens contained within the cramped two levels of the museum is equally striking. The time and effort it must have taken to accumulate these pieces, and the efforts to maintain them today, is a cause for wonder in and of itself.
Some evolutionary biologists postulate that the compulsion to collect is a by-product of our earliest ancestors’ dependence on hunting and gathering for sustenance. As our ancestors moved towards agricultural means of survival, our patterns of gathering seem to have remained but shifted to less necessary objects. This behavior may be one possible explanation for several successful seasons of the TV show Hoarders. And this side effect of evolution can be seen in other species as well; certain kinds of cats hoard jewelry and small shiny objects while certain mice like to spend their time burying marbles. Of course that isn’t to say that all collectors have OCD or a penchant for hoarding, but it may be one way that we as a species deal with the remnants of our shared evolutionary past.
About a year before his death in 1858, Thomas Dent Mütter donated his sizable collection of anatomical and pathological specimens to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia with the express purpose of educating future generations of physicians as well as the public. On a beautiful summer afternoon, a line of visitors snakes down the entrance stairs, through the gate, spilling out onto the sidewalk. Whether to marvel at the human body or just to contemplate the fascination we have with collections, it’s a Saturday well spent.
Heather Tripp is a perpetual student that is having trouble finding space for her growing collection of dusty old books and records.