Mathilde Denegre ’21 Consults Grey’s Anatomy

Me next to a picture of the Mütter American Giant

Content warning: Infant death, disease, racist violence.

Within my first hour at the Mütter Museum I had seen a cholera-ridden intestine, a syphilitic skull, and a rubber tub full of formerly radioactive fetuses. This was quite a change from the old books and papers that make up the bulk of my research during the year. Needless to say, I had to sit down and drink some water before getting any work done.

I perform a variety of tasks as an intern. I spent much of my first week in the stacks, reorganizing boxes of material not on display or fetching objects for researchers to study. Highlights of what I carried include primitive forceps and papier-mache models of the reproductive system. I also catalogue new acquisitions like boxes of Victorian medicine or donated bones. Yes, some skeletons really are found in closets. Last Monday, my boss decided I should articulate one such skeleton so I could get some practical understanding of anatomy. To articulate a skeleton is to lay out the bones in the correct order. I ended up putting the collar bones and most of the arms on the wrong side of the body, even with a copy of Grey’s Anatomy bigger than I am. Medical students, I salute you. 

However, the Mütter is more than just a cabinet of curiosities, and my job is more than an adventure through Halloweentown. The museum is a branch of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, one of the oldest medical bodies in the United States. It houses two centuries worth of invaluable specimens. Anna Dhody, one of my bosses, heads the Mütter Research Institute, an organization dedicated to using the power of the collections to further medical knowledge. I am assisting her with a project on early smallpox vaccinations. Anna is sampling early vaccination instruments to try and find remaining traces of the cowpox virus. I am reading and transcribing letters between early vaccinators to try and find more artifacts that may still contain a trace of cowpox. By studying paths of both viruses we hope to understand more about the spread of both diseases and cures.

A package of antique anemia medication

The discovery of the small-pox vaccine is almost a classic medical story. Edward Jenner observed milkmaids, took some pus from Blossom the cow, and stood up to one of the horsemen of the apocalypse. The eradication of smallpox is still one of the greatest victories of science against the unknown. I confess that I worried the reality of Jenner and his peers would be less interesting than the triumph of medicine I studied in school. I was wrong.

The early vaccinators are a cast of characters begging for a place in a prestigious historical drama. I spent two days transcribing the letters of Benjamin Waterhouse, one of the founders of Harvard Medical School and the man who brought the vaccine to the United States. Though that accomplishment alone should label him a hero, almost all of his efforts in securing and maintaining the vaccine fell into the gray spectrum of morality. Waterhouse’s first test subjects were his own children, and he later tried to maintain a monopoly on the vaccine’s distribution in New England. While he wanted this monopoly for personal gain, he was also concerned with the integrity of the vaccine matter.

Messing around with props from a video to lure Guillermo del Toro to the museum

The great struggle of the early vaccinators was in maintaining a supply of cowpox robust enough to provide an effective inoculation. Small amounts of pus or scabs were originally transported on threads or between glass plates, but the virus was the freshest when taken from a patient’s arm about a week after the inoculation. Doctors often vaccinated patients with dubious consent at best in order to maintain a fresh supply of cowpox. Francisco Xavier de Balmis, the royal surgeon of the Spanish Empire, took twenty-four orphans with him on his voyage to bring vaccination to Mexico. Each week, he vaccinated a new pair of boys with samples of the virus taken from the last pair. Thomas Jefferson, ever a son of the Enlightenment, used his slaves’ bodies to maintain a supply of cowpox. My boss is attempting to track down the physical manuscripts of letters between Waterhouse and Jefferson, as glass plates containing the virus were simply send through the post.

Reading about the early vaccinators has made me consider what gets swept under the rug in medical history. I do not doubt that the smallpox vaccine has saved millions of lives, or that it is one of science’s triumphs. However, it is important for us to remember the hundreds or thousands of people who had their bodily integrity taken away in pursuit of the vaccine. Research into medical history is essential not just for what scientific knowledge it reveals, but for what miscarriages of justice it can bring to light. I hope to spend the rest of my summer at the Mütter bringing more skeletons out of the closet, one misplaced scapula at a time.

Written by Mathilde Denegre ’21, history major, museum studies minor

Edited by Emily Dombrovskaya ’19