Summer at the Mütter

Hi, I’m Kate Monahan, and this summer I’m working at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, in their Historical Medical Library and Mütter Museum.

In my first four weeks at the Mütter, I have:

  • handled some medicinal leeches
  • learned how to Photoshop
  • smelled the Cabinet of Death
  • read the reflections of Civil War veterans whose limbs were amputated

Every day I work in this beautiful building:

photo (1)

(not in this room, but this is my favorite room)

specifically in the Historical Medical Library. My projects include digitizing rare books and working on an upcoming exhibit on the Civil War. Most days, this means I choose books to digitize, take pictures of them using a very powerful and fancy camera, Photoshop the results, and research the image in order to create metadata (essentially digitally cataloging the image).

photo (2)

(a typical library day- 19th c. anatomy book, metadata, fellow intern in the background)

Helping with the Civil War exhibit has meant working on several different projects. My favorite so far has been reading and researching surveys sent out in the 1890s to Civil War veterans by the surgeons who had amputated their limbs. Many of the men were still in pain after thirty years, and the letters range in tone from despondent to sarcastic. I was tasked with selecting the 6 most intriguing surveys, which will be researched in the National Archives by a class at Gettysburg College in the fall.

Other days, I get to explore other parts of the Mütter:

  • The museum director’s pet medicinal leeches were out of their tank while it was being cleaned, so I was able to play with them during lunch. They are fed from his arm once or twice a year.
  • Sometimes I get to tweet interesting things that I come across. Tweeting was terrifying at first, especially as someone who way overthinks her media presence, but it’s gotten easier with practice. Check it out at (I am obviously not the only tweeter)
  •  The Cabinet of Death is the metal cabinet where the dried body parts not displayed in the museum are kept. Opening the cabinet releases a foul, overpowering stench. The smell, while revolting, is not actually emanating from the human flesh—it’s from the 19th century resins used to preserve it.

It has been a fascinating summer thus far.

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