Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum is one odd place, home to, among other things, the conjoined liver from the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker, and president Grover Cleveland’s jaw tumour. But its greatest oddity might be the Chevalier Jackson Foreign Body Collection. Pioneering laryngologist Jackson (1865-1958) virtually invented the science of endoscopy, using illuminated hollow tubes and tiny forceps ingeniously wielded to remove potentially fatal objects inhaled or ingested by patients. And Jackson put all the objects he and his trained assistants removed, more than 2,000 of them, into his collection.
Their range is huge (from a two-inch nail to a half-dollar coin to a miniature pair of binoculars to hundreds of pins). The names of the patients are beyond Dickensian, including Rat Crancer (a gumshoe, Cappello speculates) and the almost unbelievable Sister Mary Pica (Pica being the medical name for the psychiatric disorder of eating non-nutritive substances, such as clay or pencils). The precipitating reasons for the trouble, laconically noted by Jackson, are often as comic: “safety pin in mouth, suddenly stepped on dog’s foot.”
Taken together, the collection has also inspired one odd, and oddly haunting, book. For Cappello, a professor of creative writing at the University of Rhode Island, Jackson’s work is the starting point in a poetic investigation of the things we put in our mouths (and why). The laryngologist was resolutely scientific in his outlook—”I don’t read fiction,” he notes in his bestselling 1938 autobiography—and he never speculated about the “why” of his patients. “Carelessness,” was his universal verdict. Cappello refuses to believe that was the entire story, not when the medical literature includes such cases as New Yorker Mabel Wolf, whose stomach yielded an astonishing 1,203 pieces of hardware. We all want to taste the world as well as see and touch it, the author notes, and some of us are more willing than others to ignore Jackson’s guiding maxim: “A button box is a dangerous plaything.”