The Mütter Museum hails its “disturbingly informative” collection of ancient bones, body parts and other medical curiosities that tend toward the macabre.
But hidden in the upper floors of its red-brick building is a multimillion-dollar library of rare medical records, photos and books from centuries past, when early doctors tried to solve the mysteries of the human body without none of the tools of modern science.
In the historical medical library are thousands of items with perhaps less shock appeal, but just as much value for the history of medicine.
The collection is now open to the public for the first time in its 234-year history, included with weekend entry to the Mütter Museum downstairs. Saturday and Sunday marked the official opening to the public of the library, although a “soft opening” has been underway since June.
Visitors can read yellowed records of Philadelphia’s battles with yellow fever in the 1790s. Gilded medieval manuscripts complete with recipes for herbal remedies. Pamphlets tout the use of mercury, opium and other ancient treatments with questionable benefits.
Once reserved for researchers, the library was deemed by its overseers to be too valuable not to be shared with the public, director Heidi Nance said.
A prime example is the library’s collection of anti-vaccine materials, she said. For anyone who imagines that attacks on vaccines are a recent phenomenon, the library has ample evidence that they have been around since the 19th century.
“One of the ways we understand today is to understand history,” Nance said. “How did we get here?”
The library is not part of the Mütter Museum, but is a sister organization. Both are under the aegis of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
Among the treasures of the library are more than 400 books printed before 1501, the oldest of which was written in the 13th century. Most are hidden in the stacks of the library spanning over 51,000 linear feet of shelving space over seven floors. The public only has access to the library’s reading room, which features a rotating display of highlights.
Among the featured items is one that should appeal to Harry Potter fans. In a replica of a medieval illustration, a man runs away after digging up a magic mandrake root. According to lore, the plant could emit a heart-rending cry, as Potter fans know from reading about herbalism lessons at Hogwarts School.
Nearby is a 1797 handwritten report on yellow fever, in which prominent Philadelphia physicians attributed the spread of the disease to “putrid exhalations from gutters, streets, ponds, and swampy grounds.” Well, sort of. The disease is transmitted by mosquitoes, which breed in ponds and other standing water, but that link wasn’t discovered until almost a century later.
Visitors can also see a 1915 leaflet that describes Apetol, an alleged appetite stimulant, under the heading “It’ll make you eat!” Over a dozen herbal ingredients are listed, believed to produce their effect through “superior pharmaceutical manipulation”.
Other treasures include a medical text made of palm leaves tied with twine, written in the 18th century in what was then called Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
Among the vintage photos is one from the early 20th century, showing a horse-drawn buggy with a banner advertising a herbal “blood purifier.”
“It has not been approved by the FDA,” Nance said.
Although much of the collection’s ancient medical history sounds like snake oil to a modern audience, much of it has stood the test of time.
Among the artifacts is a medical bill from 1800, in which a man had to pay three pounds to have his child vaccinated against smallpox. A descendant of this vaccine is being used this year to vaccinate people against a related disease: monkeypox.
Most library materials were written by men, as women were barred from training to become doctors for much of medical history. Yet women still practiced medicine, as shown in the early 20th-century “Book of Commonplaces” by famed Philadelphia-area suffragette Juliet Coates Walton.
The volume includes medicinal recipes for treating wasp stings, warts, rheumatism and colds. For the latter, Walton’s recipe called for a mixture of ammonium chloride, licorice and sugar, dissolved in hot water.
A scrapbook was opened Sunday to a series of black and white photos of the now defunct Philadelphia General Hospital. In one image, doctors in white coats demonstrated how to deliver a baby, hovering over a bedridden actor who pretended to be in labor.
The actor, Nance happily noted, was male, though some nurses were in the audience and probably could have portrayed the experience more accurately.
“I think it’s hilarious,” she said.