Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits: Injury, Death & Healing in Civil War Philadelphia
The Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, through 2018
IN “BROKEN BODIES, SUFFERING SPIRITS,”a new exhibition on injury, death and healing in the Civil War, a display on 19th-century surgical tools receives innovative treatment. Instead of merely showing a velvet-lined medical kit— although the exhibit has one of those too—the organizers have included a fine anatomical drawing of a human body and mounted period tools so that they are suspended above the exact places where they might have been used in an operation: forceps over the chest, a saw and curving surgeon’s needles over a leg. Another display offers a grisly array of human bones, including splintered femurs and shattered elbows, some of which still hold the Minié balls that did the damage.
Still others showcase a dysenteric colon and an intestine infected by typhoid, a scourge known as “camp fever.” For all its brute muscle, this exhibit reminds us the human body is a fragile vessel for war’s traumas.
This kind of unflinching approach is typical of the Mütter Museum, part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, a private medical society dating to 1787. The museum, which opened in 1863, is perhaps best known for the Hyrtl Skull Collection, an impressive array of skulls acquired from a Viennese anatomist in the 1870s that are displayed along one wall.
In planning this special exhibition, museum officials knew that a study of Civil War injury, death and medicine could have focused solely on hospital design or highlighted famous patients, surgeons or nurses. Instead, they opted to tell the story of the Civil War body specifically—how it was injured, and how it was healed.
The overall effect of this approach is to humanize soldiers. This hits home in an interactive booth, dressed up with a velvet curtain like a photography parlor, in which visitors stand before a mirror and have an arm “amputated” through special effects. Watching gangrene spread up your own arm is a powerful experience, to say the least.
The exhibition tells the stories of actual soldiers as well. One of these is Colonel Henry S. Huidekoper, who earned a Medal of Honor at Gettysburg, where his wounds warranted amputation of his right arm. In 1906 he typed a letter to Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, who had treated him. “As with everybody else who has lost a limb, the fingers are distinctly felt, and pains occur oftentimes to various parts of them,” Huidekoper wrote more than 40 years after his injury. “When I ride, or drive, or cling to limb[s] on the trees, or write, in my dreams, I always have the use of both of my hands.”
To accompany the exhibit, the museum has produced an informative series of online videos starring museum director Robert D. Hicks, which is available at http://mutter museum.org/videos/broken-bodiessuffering-spirits-archive/.
Originally published in the February 2015 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.