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A Day at the Museum

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By Diana Vacchiano, Marketing Coordinator

My husband and I were planning a daylong trip to his hometown of Philadelphia, a city we’ve always loved visiting not far from where I grew up in Central Pennsylvania. Since we’ve been married (and even before) we’ve done our fair share of traveling. We’ve been to Philadelphia dozens of times and felt like we’d seen it all – and then my sister recommended the Mütter Museum. For those of you, like myself, who had never heard of the Mütter Museum, let me fill you in: the Mütter is part of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and boasts a gallery of bizarre medical oddities, anatomical specimens, and ancient medical equipment. If you’ve ever wondered where the organs go when people donate them to science…this is where those organs are housed.   

When you first walk in, you get the vibe that this could be a museum for ancient artifacts or paintings, but once you turn a corner and embark on the main exhibit, you realize that the Mütter is anything but a fine arts gallery adorned with the works of Monet and Picasso. Rows of display cases and jars illuminating disease-infested organs and appendages appear before you as if someone has opened the doors to Dr. Frankenstein’s secret US laboratory. There is even an entire room dedicated to Civil War wounds, diseases, and psychological disorders that afflicted soldiers on the battlefield.  

Best known for its impressive Hyrtl Skull Collection, the museum also features a number of specimens with anatomical oddities and gruesome, hard-to-digest deformities, including a wax model of a woman with a large horn growing out of her forehead, slides of Albert Einstein’s brain tissue, a malignant tumor removed from the hard palate of former President Grover Cleveland, and the remains of a nine-foot-long human colon from a man known as the “Human Balloon.??? Oh, and that nine-foot-long colon held over 40 pounds of fecal matter. 

Perhaps the most interesting of all of these spectacles is the corpse of the mysterious “Soap Lady.??? According to Dr. Joseph Leidy, aka the Father of American Vertebrae Paleontology, the soap lady perished after a bout of Yellow Fever during an epidemic in 1792. Her nickname derives from the chemical transformation of her corpse into a soapy substance commonly known as grave wax, or adipocere. Her mouth is contorted in a bloodcurling postmortem scream, as if whatever afterlife she may be experiencing is equally as terrifying as the reality that claimed her. It sounds like the stuff of urban legends, or the backstory to some B-Horror movie, but the case of the Soap Lady has left researchers puzzled for over a hundred years dating back to 1874, when Leidy originally donated the body to the museum. 

Working in the biotech industry as a Marketing Coordinator, it’s easy to only see the end result of our research merely as “products,??? and to forget the bigger implications and intentions of our efforts. Visiting the museum brought me crashing back to the difficult reality of the task at hand, witnessing limbs covered in smallpox sores and human lips marbled with Herpesvirus. Even in today’s modern world, new viruses (and in some cases old ones) still pose a formidable threat to the longevity of the human race. Some of the stomach-turning exhibits and medical relics also reminded me of how far we have come with our research, that we no longer have to resort to bloodletting, lobotomies, and alchemy to stave off infections and save human lives (did you know that in the 19th century Bayer developed and sold bottled heroin to the public as a cough medicine?)   

The end goal of our body of work, as well as the work of our industry collaborators (and even our competitors) should always be the same: to make people healthier. Some could argue that for the big companies, dollars matter more than results, but at ABI it has always been our goal to make seismic changes to the processes used in developing viruses for research, and to facilitate research that uncovers new methods of improving human diagnostics. Yes, the industry has come a long way, and if anything, the proof of this is displayed and jarred throughout the dim corridors of the Mütter. I wondered, as I drifted through the museum, if a hundred or two hundred years into the future, we’ll be looking back in awe and wonderment at the same treatment methods we view as being common or innovative by today’s standards. I wouldn’t be shocked if someday Botox or Liposuction appeared in some occult museum of human surgical procedures that were at one time popular and trendy. Now that I’ve visited the Mütter and checked it off of my list of places to go, I think that the next time my husband and I drop by the city of Brotherly Love, we’ll settle for a Phillies game, even though, depending on the year, this could be just as eerie of a sight. 

About Advanced Biotechnologies Inc (ABI):

Since 1982, ABI has produced and supplied innovative virology products and services to researchers and manufacturers worldwide. ABI offers a wide range of standard and custom products and services, including large-scale in vitro production of HIV and other viruses. For more information about ABI’s capabilities, visit www.abionline.com.

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