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Papier-mâché model of an eye

Courtesy of Mütter Museum

STANDARDS

CCSS: 6.NS.B.2, 7.NS.A.2, 7.NS.A.3, MP1, MP2

TEKS: 6.3E, 7.3A, 7.3B

Mysteries at the Mütter

This museum showcases medical oddities to help doctors understand the human body

From skulls and bones to preserved body parts, the Mütter Museum brings anatomy class to a whole other level. For more than 150 years, people have visited the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, institution to see its collection of medical specimens. 

“Our bodies are filled with some interesting stuff. Sometimes it goes right, and sometimes it goes wrong,” says Robert Hicks, the museum’s director. Today you see a doctor when you get sick. If you have an infection, you take medicine. But it wasn’t always like that. Until recently, little was known about how the inside of the human body worked. Although early doctors did a pretty good job with their limited knowledge, a small injury—like stepping on a rusty nail—could be lethal. 

Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter, a plastic surgeon in Philadelphia, wanted to improve our knowledge of the human body. He started the Mütter collection after a visit to France in the 1850s. There he saw medical advancements he wanted to bring back to the U.S. So he began collecting body parts—skeletons, organs preserved in fluid, and more. Many samples came from sick people who had tumors or people with unusual genetic conditions. These samples were important because they could teach other doctors what to look for in patients with similar symptoms.

Since then, the museum has grown to include a tumor removed from President Grover Cleveland’s jaw in 1893, a collection of 139 skulls, and slices from 765 people’s brains—including Albert Einstein’s!

Bettmann/Getty Images (Einstein); Courtesy of Mutter Museum (all other photos)

You might think a collection of old human remains holds little value beyond the fascination of its more than 150,000 annual visitors. But in fact, scientists still study the samples today. “We’re utilizing our 19th-century collection to do 21st-century research,” says Anna Dhody, a curator at the museum.

One example of this involves a recent case of cholera, a deadly intestinal disease that kills up to 142,000 people each year. A few years back, scientists visited the Mütter Museum to extract DNA from a person who died during a cholera outbreak in 1849. They got the DNA from an intestine preserved in fluid. Comparing the old cholera DNA to a more recent strain, scientists learned that the cholera mutated faster than originally thought.

“You really can learn from the past,” says Dhody.

Courtesy of Mutter Museum

Multiply fractions to learn more about items at the Mütter Museum. Write all answers in simplest form.

The museum has a collection of 139 skulls on display in 9 rows. In the first row, 2/11 of the skulls on display came from females. There are 22 skulls in the first row. How many are from females? 

The shortest adult skeleton at the Mütter stands 3 1/2 feet. The tallest skeleton in the museum stands 2 1/7 times taller. How tall is the tallest skeleton? 

A. Chevalier Jackson (1865-1958) was a doctor who collected about 2,500 objects he retrieved from people’s airways after they were swallowed. About 19/100 of the collection are safety pins. How many is that?

B. About  4/125 are buttons and about 3/50 are coins. About how many more of the objects are coins?

About 1,300 organ specimens are preserved in fluid. Typically the solution that preserves the organs contains 7/10 alcohol and 3/10 water. If one jar contains 19 pints of the alcohol-water solution, how much of the solution is water?   

A new exhibit at the museum focuses on skin, the body’s largest organ! It differs in thickness all over your body. The soles of your feet are the thickest, at 1 2/5 millimeters. Your eyelids are the thinnest, just 1/70 times the thickness of your soles. How thick is the skin on your eyelids? Express your answer as a decimal. 

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