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Wistar at Mutter

Wistar at the Mütter, Where Science Meets History

The Mütter Museum is a unique place. The contrast between beautiful, old, high-ceiling halls — lined with antique books, half-busts and portraits — against the surrounding tall, modern buildings gleaming through large glass windows well represent the juxtaposition of history and science that takes place at this institution.

Those who are familiar with The Wistar Institute know that its celebrated and prolific scientific trajectory began as an anatomy museum, which included specimens of remarkable medical and historic value. No other venue than Mütter shares as much of Wistar’s history and would be more suitable to display a selection of Wistar specimens highlighting the value of historical medical collections.

Wistar at the Mütter, co-sponsored by the two institutions, offered a special viewing of The Wistar Institute's pop-up exhibit at the Museum. Wistar and Mütter friends, joined by medicine and history enthusiasts, enjoyed the exhibit followed by a panel discussion moderated by Wistar’s Anita Pepper, Ph.D., vice president of Institutional Advancement, and featuring Stanley Plotkin, M.D., fellow of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and emeritus professor at Wistar, and Anna Dhody, director of the Mütter Institute and Curator of the Mütter Museum.

Dr. Plotkin, a noted expert in vaccine development who contributed to the creation of the rubella vaccine and other lifesaving vaccines while working at Wistar, narrated an overview history of the Institute, describing its evolution from an anatomy museum to a birthplace of American biomedical research. His presentation illustrated significant scientific achievements, from the early development of cell culture and vaccines to the latest DNA vaccine technologies, from the dawn of the cancer biology era to the most recent research in genomics and cancer immunotherapy.

Dhody presented the Mütter Research Institute and its mission to promote the value of historical medical collections. She spoke about the extraordinary work Mütter is doing in collaboration with other institutions to bring to light the biological information preserved within their collection of pathological anatomy specimen and medical tools.

Notable examples are the recovery of cholera DNA from intestine samples collected in Philadelphia in 1849 and preserved in alcohol in a glass jar to this day, and the recovery of viral DNA from scab material residues still present on a vaccination kit from the 19th century, which revealed the presence of an unknown orthopoxvirus, different from the strain that was used at the time to vaccinate people against smallpox.

During a stimulating audience Q&A, Plotkin and Dhody discussed how infectious diseases and vaccination have shaped history and stressed the importance of medical specimens preserved and bequeathed to the next generations. What we consider as “just” fascinating pieces that belong in natural history museums might help us understand the evolution of infectious agents and provide information relevant to current diseases. History and science go hand in hand, using historical medical collections as a source of precious biological information that can illuminate modern research on health issues of the 21st century.

See all the photos from the night.