The Civil War and the Mütter

This summer I’m working at the Mütter Museum, a museum dedicated to the history of medicine. The Mütter is filled with amazing specimens of medical oddities and is the best museum in Philadelphia (though I admit I may be a little biased). I’m currently working on two projects about the Civil War. The first is a book project that will be centered on a previously unpublished diary written by a Union surgeon during the war. My job for this book has been to transcribe the diary as closely and accurately as possible so as to maintain the doctor’s original style, phrasing, and even mistakes for both publication and the book’s contributors.

The second project is helping develop a new permanent exhibit about Civil War medicine. For this project I’m preparing a list of library materials and museum objects that could potentially go on display in the exhibit. This project is fun and fascinating because it allows me to look and flip through books and objects from the mid 19th century and discover what makes each of them interesting and potentially worth displaying.

One of the reasons I find my internship so enjoyable is that I have never studied the Civil War in depth but it is incredibly rewarding to research and learn about events like the battles of Chancellorsville of Gettysburg from the diary of a surgeon who was present for the fighting. But even more interesting than the accounts of the actual fighting, wounds or surgeries are the interpersonal accounts of these soldiers’ daily lives on the march or the civil relationships between Union and Confederate officers. History is by far the most fun when you get to closely interact with primary sources and form your own opinions and conclusions unadulterated by those of others.

In addition to enjoying the actual work, I’m thrilled to work at the museum with the most fun and interesting collections that I’ve ever seen. The Mütter has an entire wall of skulls, an 8-foot-long colon, a 70 pound ovarian cyst, and a chest of drawers filled with objects that had been inhaled and removed from peoples’ throats all on display! Furthermore, I’ve gotten to see collections that are not on display like those in the bone room and the wet specimen room, a room filled with specimens submerged in liquid like hands, feet or brain slices. What more could you ask for from a summer internship?!

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