For a week this summer, History senior Trevor Engel spent hours looking through old documents, surrounded by collections of skulls and mummified remains.
Engel, who is researching anatomical museums and eugenics, was awarded a Wood Institute travel grant from the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the chance to spend time in the world-famous Mütter Museum. For several days, he worked a few rooms away from exhibitions and collections that include severed spines, antique medical equipment and slides of Albert Einstein’s brain.
“The Mütter Museum is fascinating,” Engel said. “It’s sort of a modern freak show of the dead. It may be weird or gross you out, but they’re teaching about anatomy and how medical science has evolved over the years.”
Engel’s project focuses on how museums during the mid-to-late 1800s and early 1900s collected specimens, mostly from people with disabilities. Many times, items were collected and displayed by physicians, often without consent. In recent decades, museums like the Mütter have gone to great lengths to acquire items legally and through legitimate donations. But Engel, who is minoring in Disability Studies, said older collections speak volumes about society’s opinion on disability and people with disabilities.
“The common medical practice was ‘if it’s weird, it needs to be fixed,’” he said. “I think we’re nearing a point where we don’t stare at a person and say something is wrong, but Disability Studies looks at society and asks what can society do to include that person?”
Dr. Sarah Rose, director of the Disability Studies minor and an associate professor in History, said that Engel’s project will help illuminate one of the major ways in which disabled people’s bodies became stigmatized and objectified.
“Disability studies scholars have looked at the collection of living disabled people’s bodies in freak shows and asylums but have not paid little attention to the use of dead disabled bodies and body parts in medical education and eugenics. It was incredibly pervasive,” she said. “It’s very exciting to see an undergraduate develop such a creative project — one that has the potential to reshape a key narrative in disability history.”
During his week at the Mütter, Engel reviewed original museum catalogs from the 1880s and 1890s, many handwritten by curators. He also worked with current curator Anna Dhody and head archivist Beth Lander to examine financial records, donation records and old medical photographs. Engel plans to use the material for his research project and hopes to pursue a graduate degree in history after graduation this spring. Researching the history of medical science and specifically eugenics, or beliefs and practices aimed at improving the genetic quality of humankind, is a part of his post-UTA plans, he said.
“I feel like a lot of people don’t know about eugenics or its origins,” he said. “I’m looking at its roots in the mid-19teenth century. It really became popular around in the 1890s. Researching the physicians from that era and discovering their rationale for collecting people and specimens has taught me a lot more about eugenics than I thought I would ever know.”
(By James Dunning, COLA Communications)
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