Chang and Eng, the Brothers Quay, and a giant human colon

March 3rd, 2011 → 10:45 am @ // No Comments

It’s been a busy couple of days, and as I result I’ve half-started about a dozen posts that now will likely never see the (virtual) light of day. On Tuesday morning, Paul Offit and I were guests on WHYY’s Radio Times, on Tuesday evening, Dr. Offit and I spoke at the College of Physicians in Philadelphia, which was sponsored by the College’s History of Vaccines program. (Sometime soon, a video of an interview with the College’s director, Dr. George Wohlreich, will be posted on the medical society’s YouTube channel.)

There’s plenty to report about all of the above, but I feel compelled to at least briefly bow to the genius that is The Mutter Museum, a sort of cabinet of medical/anthropological curiosities housed within the College’s headquarters in downtown Philadelphia. It’s awesome.

To give a brief sense of what’s contained therein, here’s a paragraph from the museum’s description of its exhibits: “Normal and Abnormal Fetal Development, Obstetrics and Gynecology is highlighted by the plaster cast of the Original Siamese Twins Chang and Eng Bunker and their preserved livers. Wet specimens, skeletons and models show major and minor developmental and genetic disorders, including conjoined twins, anencephaly, and spina bifida. A huge ovarian cyst and malformed pelves dramatically illustrate the health challenges of 19th century women.”

My personal stop-me-in-my-tracks display was a huge human colon — and removed after the death of a 29-year-old man in 1892.

(If you need any other convincing that this is worth visiting, you can check out the Museum’s virtual tour.)

Before the end of the night, I’d learned that the Brothers Quay, whose brilliant Street of Crocodiles may very well be my favorite movie of all time, have been commissioned to do a documentary about the Museum. There’s an interview with Stephen and Timothy about this project here.

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2 Comments → “Chang and Eng, the Brothers Quay, and a giant human colon”

  1. MarshallDog

    13 years ago

    Are you sure the colon was removed from the man and not the other way around?


  2. jre

    13 years ago

    ust heard your interview with Bob Edwards. The tone, focus and level of detail were all bang on target. High praise is due both to you and to Bob.

    But enough of that. Let’s talk about medical museums. When I was a kid, the US Army Medical Museum was housed in a grim, sooty red stone building on the Mall about a block from the Smithsonian castle. It was the spookiest and most fascinating place a ten-year-old boy could dream of.

    They had General Sickles’ shattered thigh bone and the bullet that had done the deed.
    A leg from an elephantiasis sufferer floated in a vat of formalin; it was bigger than I was.
    A completely fused skeleton sat in a closet-sized display case. The poor fellow had lived out his days in a VA hospital as osteoarthritis took the mobility of every joint in his body until they removed his front teeth to feed him soup.

    An entire corner of one room was given over to teratatogenic specimens: fused or extra-limbed or acephalic fetuses in jars.

    One young woman had been a compulsive hair eater, and her hairball was on display, looking almost coiffed in its neatness. She was a blonde.

    In the back room were photos showing the results of military accidents grisly beyond imagining. One, I recall, was of a crewman who had walked face-first into a helicopter tail rotor.

    My parents had absolutely no idea what was in that place, or I would have been banned in a heartbeat.

    “What did you do after school today, honey?”

    “Went to the museum.”

    “Oh, that’s nice.”

    The Army Medical Museum has long since been relocated to the grounds of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and most of the grotesquerie has disappeared in favor of exhibits with an explicitly educational mission. But I’ll never forget that spooky old museum. If I grew up with a passion for natural (and unnatural) science, it deserves much of the credit.


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