Friday, February 12, 2010

The Giant Colon

It lies in a serpentine position inside a glass case like a creature from an unknown place or something that could only be dreamed up in ancient mythology, like an Ouroboros. Or a giant snake that lived in the depths of the sea or that spent its life burrowed into the deep earth. Its brown skin is paper thin. If stretched out, it measures more than eight feet in length and has a circumference of 27 inches.

It is a human colon, one of the highlights of a trip to the Mütter Museum, which collects and displays anatomy and human medical anomalies and provides an historical context for medical tools and procedures used over the past 150 years. It’s a ghoulish, educational and intriguing collection.
The museum’s exhibits include: The plaster cast of the torso of the world-famous Siamese Twins, Chang & Eng, and their conjoined livers; a cancerous growth removed from President Grover Cleveland; and books that are bound by human skin. Unfortunately, the museum has an extremely strict no pictures and video policy, so most of images are from either the Mütter Museum Web site or other Web sites.

The abnormalities of the human skeletal system are the focus of the tallest skeleton on display in North America, a seven-foot-six-inch person from Kentucky; alongside a three-foot-six-inch dwarf. One notices immediately the oversized, protruding rib cage of the tall skeleton, a common occurrence among unusually large persons.

Famed Austrian anatomist, Joseph Hyrtl, donated a collection of 139 skulls that depict the physical variations among ethnic groups (pictured from
Mütter Museum Web site).

Then there’s the “Soap Lady,” an exhumed body taken to the museum because her body had changed to adipocere, a wax-like organic substance formed by the fat in animal tissue—such as body fat in corpses when buried in a cool, moist environment. In its formation, putrefaction is replaced by a permanent firm cast of fatty tissues, internal organs and the face. Her preserved body is one of the museum’s most popular exhibits. She is believed to be more than 130 years old and is constantly being x-rayed as new imaging technology becomes available to determine, among other things: her age, when she died, and (believe it or not) how she lost her teeth at a young age.

The colon was removed from a man who didn’t quite make it to his 30th birthday and who used his medical condition to earn a living a sideshow performer in Philadelphia, billed at different times as the “Balloon Man” and the “Human Windbag.” He died, not surprisingly, of severe constipation. His colon contained more than 40 pounds of feces at the time of his death. There are pictures of him inside the museum naked with his protruding abdomen and a record of a visit to Hahnemann Hospital, which he was diagnosed as having constipation, and released. He was reported to go up to a month without a bowel movement and suffering severe pain.

Photos of "Balloon Man" and his giant colon at the top of the page are are from

The museum is housed inside the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Founded in 1787, it is the oldest professional medical organization in the country. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia is not an academic organization, as the name suggests, but a not-for-profit educational and cultural institution dedicated to advancing the cause of health, and upholding the ideals and heritage of medicine.

The two-story museum itself isn’t very large, but it is filled to the rim with well-organized collections of medical tools, preserved human remains, and models of human remains. About 2,000 objects extracted from people's throats are stored in file draws. There are human and animal fetuses, sliced sections of a human head (pictured from the Mutter Museum Web site), and several exhibits and artifacts of conjoined twins.

Just outside the building, there’s an attractive, quiet medical garden—which contains more than fifty kinds of herbs with detailed explanations of their historical medicinal value and their value in contemporary medical therapy.

The Mütter Museum, 19 South 22nd Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19103.


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