Mutilation, torture, and violence are the basis for the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, which is far from the stories you may have heard at bedtime. Suffocating bodices replace friendly singing mice, and talking ravens trump fairy godmothers. In the Grimms’ version of “Cinderella”, both of the stepsisters mutilate their own feet in an attempt to trick the prince, and the price they pay for their evil deeds is having their eyes plucked out birds. “Snow White”’s ending punishes the evil queen by forcing her to wear iron slippers and walk on hot coals until she burns to death. And the Grimm stories get much more gruesome.
“The Grimms’ Anatomy” exhibition at the Mütter Museum examines the mature fairy tales that the Brothers Grimm originally wrote. It highlights the medical and biological importance of the stories to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the first publication of “Children’s and Household Tales” in 1812. If you’ve never been to the Mütter Museum, it can be quite the shock. The old and warm foyer, which appears welcoming at first, leads you into their inventory of barbaric surgical artifacts: shrunken heads and fetuses in jars. It makes sense that they’d jump on the opportunity to show physical replicas from the violent and terrifying fairy tales you thought you knew, such as Chinese foot-binding remains that could have belonged to Cinderella, and a liver preserved in acrylic in reference to Snow White.
Two less common tales that look at the role of doctors are “The Three Army Surgeons” and “Godfather Death.” In the “Three Army Surgeons,” three traveling army surgeons brag about their ability to reattach amputated limbs and removed organs using a magical salve. In attempt to impress an innkeeper, the surgeons perform surgery on themselves. In the night, a cat eats their body parts and the innkeeper replaces them with various parts from a thief, a cat, and a pig. The unknowing surgeons then take on the characteristics of the organ donors. Like many of the physicians seen in Grimm’s fairy tales, the three surgeons were egotistical and ignorant. Despite how good the doctors thought they were at their craft, they couldn’t tell the difference between decaying animal organs and their own. The fairy tale “Godfather Death” runs similarly. Death gives his godson an herb that can heal the sick and the godson uses it to become a wealthy physician. But when the Godson misuses the herb, it leads to his own death.
The negative view of physicians in these stories was most likely influenced by the personal experiences of Wilhelm Grimm. According to “The Grimms’ Anatomy” exhibition, Wilhelm contracted an illness that left him weak and sickly for the rest of his life, which may explain the brothers’ attitudes towards doctors.
Stephanie Yakir is a senior Biology Major at Drexel University.