Turning Bones into Art

Skeleton of Harry Raymond Eastlick, who suffered a progressive condition that turned tissue to bone.

A few Sundays ago, I was at Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum viewing the Hyrtl Skull Collection, an ensemble of multi-ethnic craniums collected from throughout Central and Eastern Europe by Dr. Josef Hyrtl during the early 1800s. Hyrtl, a professor of anatomy at the University of Prague, believed that racial and intellectual traits could be determined by studying the cranial bone structures of various groups. The museum acquired Hyrtl’s 139 skulls, along with thirty-six placentas and six sets of genitals, in 1875.

Beneath each skull is a brief bio of its time as a living thing, including name, country, profession and cause of death. There was a bandit who’d been shot dead by police in Calabria, Italy’s Abruzzi Mountains. Girolama Zini, a 20-year-old rope walker, died of atlanto-axial dislocation or a broken neck. Franz Baum, 13, of Austria, hanged himself after he was caught stealing. Roland Adalbert died after slitting his throat “because of extreme poverty.” Many once belonged to people executed for various crimes.

The biographical details made viewing the skulls a slightly absurd affair.

Imagine how Hungarian guerrilla, Ladislaus Pal, might have responded upon being told that Americans in the 21st Century would pay money to see his skull? Pal found his way into the collection after being captured and executed in 1842.

There was a family with three small boys standing next to me. Both the mother and father pointed out specific skulls as though they were zoo animals. “Oooooh!” the mother exulted. “That one was a robber and murderer and was hanged.”

Moments later, the father erupted with a burst of joy. “Look at that one,” said the man, who I suspect is a dentist. “He died of a gunshot wound, but what a great set of teeth!”

Conjoined twins

From the moment you step through the museum’s beaux-arts exterior, you’re transported back more than 150 years to an era of medicine where ideas concerning heredity, germ theory and cell division – cornerstones of medical biology – were still in their infancy and thus controversial. (Before scientists discovered that cells grow by dividing, it was believed new cells simply appeared spontaneously.)

The museum is housed inside the College of Physicians, an institution founded in 1787 by twenty-four doctors who gathered “to advance the science of medicine and to thereby lessen human misery,” making Philadelphia not just the birthplace of American democracy, but of American medicine, too.

In 1858, Dr. Thomas Dent Mutter, a professor of surgery at Jefferson Medical College, located here in the city, donated his collection of more than 1,300 human specimens and medical artifacts to the college.

Unlike Body Worlds, a modern exhibit of plastinated cadavers spliced and diced and fixed in iconical poses, the Mutter Museum isn’t a homage to medicine as much as it is to horrifying instances of nature gone awry. If you’re looking for artificial joints and fatty livers, the Mutter Museum will disappoint. Here you’ll bear witness to some of the miseries those 24 physicians set out to lessen. And it ain’t always pretty.

The most everyday of these miseries was child birth, which, in the early 1800s, was often a deadly enterprise. Even when the mothers survived, children often times did not. Infant mortality rates in early 19th Century America reached 300 deaths per 1,000 babies born in cities. This is three times the mortality rate of rural births, even though only fifteen percent of the population lived in cities. This disparity is attributed to poor urban sanitation and squalid living conditions.

In 1856, in Norfolk, Virginia, a prostitute named Mary Ashberry went into labor, but at 3’6″, her miniature pelvis wasn’t large enough for the child to pass through. In response, doctors collapsed the infant’s skull as the situation became dire, killing it instantly. Still, the child would not budge. An emergency cesarean was performed. Ashberry, whose skeleton is on permanent display along with her child’s broken skull, died of infection three days later.

In a pre-genetic world, birth defects were probably as shocking as they were often fatal. But some of these victims of heredity have achieved a form of immortality, albeit one inside a big glass jar. Dozens of such jars containing stillborns and infants line museum shelves. These babies, pickled in formeldahyde for upwards of 175 years, look like little grimacing gremlins still pained by their misfortune.

Some are conjoined. Others were born with their brains extruding through their skulls (exencephaly). Some were born without any brain at all (anencephaly). A boy named James Cardinall suffered from hydrocephalus, where cerebrospinal fluid causes a progressive enlargement of the head, often resulting in death. One specimen even suffered from sirenomelia, also known as Mermaid Syndrome, a congenital defect in which the legs are fused together.

After the passage of some seventeen decades, child birth is all but routine, dwarfs can deliver safely, but many of these birth defects continue to confound experts. Although, according to the Centers for Disease Control, rates of these defects have dipped upwards of 30 percent since the U.S. Public Health Service recommended in 1992 that pregnant women take folic acid, a vitamin that can repair copy errors in DNA.

The Hyrtl Skull Collection

Around the time the world’s first detectives took to London’s streets, medicine had already begun providing prosecutors with early forensic tools employed to prove guilt. Criminology, among the many emerging sciences of the day, was highly concerned with studying the criminal brain and making phrenological assessments of the skulls that protected them.

John Wilson’s brain was described by one physician as having “structures characteristic of an ape.” In 1843, Wilson dismembered his employer. When the remains were found days later in Pennsylvania’s Wissihicken Creek, authorities used them to solve a different murder. Only years later was Wilson tried and hanged after making a drunken confession in front of several witnesses.

His brain and others are on display.

Not far from these brains are six complete skeletons used to illustrate the steps forensic anthropologists take in identifying skeletal remains. In this order, they determine age, sex, race, stature and injury or disease. An audio tour guides you through the identification process for each of the skeletons.

Authorities learned early on the importance of staying abreast of  tricks used to conceal evidence. A book published in 1876 explains how to tell the difference between human and canine blood cells. Prevailing wisdom was that criminals could exploit similarities between the cells to avoid detection.

But if common crimes aren’t your thing, maybe political assassinations are. There’s an entire exhibit devoted to the Lincoln and Garfield assassinations. Here you’ll find John Wilkes Booth’s thorax and portions of Charles Guiteau’s brain. A piece of skin cut from Garfield’s back during his autopsy found its way into the collection and is displayed alongside its provenance letter.

Skeleton of Mary Ashberry, a prostitute dwarf who died of infection following a cesarean section.

As wonderful as these primary exhibits are, it’s the museum’s countless odds and ends that drive home just how gruesomely primitive 19th Century medical ideas, practices and instruments were.  See for yourself the forceps, blunt obstetrical hooks, steel speculums, amputation saws, as well as the cheek retractor used to remove the tumor from President Grover Cleveland’s jaw and not breathe a sigh of relief.

There’s the strip of human leather peeled from a man’s leg and tanned in 1863, grouped with several human leather-bound books. You’re offered a 360-degree view of a congenital megacolon that once contained 40 pounds of feces. In 1918, the gangrenous foot of a World War I soldier was amputated, thus beginning its journey to the museum.

Another interesting tidbit is that the autopsy of famous Siamese twins Cheng and Eng was performed here. Their death cast and livers can be found in the museum’s lower-level.

Opened in 1863, the museum languished for most of its history, even as its collection of medical oddities swelled to some 20,000 artifacts. It moved in 1908 to its current home, with its marble and oak halls, soft lighting and a dignity befitting its purpose. But it wasn’t until a woman named Gretchen Worden became curator in 1982 that annual visits climbed from several hundred to more than 60,000 by the time she died in 2004.

One person eulogized that Worden “turned bones into art.”

A frequent guest on the Late Show with David Letterman, Worden promoted the museum tirelessly. She had an eye for the pathological. In the forward to a book about the museum, Worden wrote, “While the bodies may be ugly, there is a terrifying beauty in the spirits of those forced to endure these afflictions.”

More information on the Mutter Museum can be found here.

Photos by James Mundie. You’ll find more of Mundie’s photos from the Mutter Museum and other curious attractions from around the world at MundieArt.com.


  1. Vicki Hayes, Psy.D. says:

    Nathan, have you experienced any nightmares?When will you be hitting the road again? Love your stories and photos.  Your weekend in NYC right before the holidays is my favorite so far. For what it’s worth, I tweeted it to all my followers.  You are gaining a very nice following :).  Well deserved.Vicki

  2. Nathan says:

    Thanks Vicki! How are you? I’ll be on the road again in late April or early May. I do appreciate the re-tweets! Thank you so much. Where is Adam Lambert these days? 

  3. Nathan says:

    Also, no nightmares. 🙂

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