The Karabots Fellows Observe Wildlife at the Wagner

Students in the Karabots Junior Fellows Program pose in front of a skeleton of a draught horse on display at the Wagner Free Institute of Science

Throughout this semester, the Karabots Junior Fellows have been focusing on the medical and social construction of human bodies. Recently, they expanded their knowledge to include how museums display animal bodies. In the first of two field trips on this topic, the Fellows visited the Wagner Free Institute of Science to explore their vast collection of natural history specimens. The Institute had its origins as an educational lecture series run by William Wagner (1796-1885), a Philadelphia merchant and amateur scientist. In 1855, local merchant and amateur scientist William Wagner (1796-1885) incorporated the Institute as a place to educate the public on the natural sciences, utilizing educators and his eclectic collection of wildlife specimens. Today the Institute’s natural history museum houses over 10,000 specimens, including fossils, skeletons, and taxidermy animals, many of which are on display to the public in nineteenth century artifact cases not unlike the Mütter Museum (which opened its doors around the same time as the Wagner). Both the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Wagner Free Institute of Science share a common figure in Joseph Leidy. Leidy, a pioneer of microscopy, a scholar of comparative anatomy, and a Fellow of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia (among other things) succeeded Wagner as Director of the Institute following his death in 1885.

After a brief introduction from Wagner Museum Educator Annie Zhang, the Fellows were tasked with identifying a specimen they found interesting and to make a sketch of it. At the end of our visit, the Fellows shared their selections and showed off their artistic skills. To commemorate their visit, the students took part in the “Mannequin Challenge,” a trend where people freeze in stationary poses while someone films them to the tune of “Black Beatles” by Rae Sremmurd, gathering around the Institute’s impressive skeleton of a 19th century English draught horse.

Vashon, a student in the Karabots Junior Fellows Program, sketches a flying fox bat specimen on display at the Wagner Free Institute of Science


The Teva Interns Prepare for the Robot Revolution

Students in the Teva Pharmaceuticals Internship Program pose on the marble steps in front of the Franklin Institute

We have made it our goal to prepare the students in our various youth programs for the future. In a recent field trip, we gave them a glimpse of the technological future that in many ways is already here. Recently we took the students of the Teva Pharmaceuticals Internship Program to visit Robot Revolution, a traveling exhibit currently on display at the Franklin Institute. The exhibit explores the practical applications of robots and challenges visitors to think about the ways mechanical systems work. Our students took on a robot in a game of tic tac toe, watched a heated soccer match played between teams of robots, and learned simple computer programming. They encountered machines programmed to mimic human facial expressions, comfort the sick, play blackjack, and even breakdance.  For our students interested in pursuing engineering and computer science fields, it gave a glimpse into what they could potentially do. For everyone, it was the chance to see just slightly into the future.

Students in the Teva Pharmaceuticals Internship Program play blackjack with a robot at the Robot Revolution exhibit at the Franklin Institute

If you would like to check out the exhibit for yourself, Robot Revolution runs through April 2, 2017.

CEPI Curiosities: Physiognomy

CEPI Curiosities: Tales from Medical History's Strange Side

Greetings and salutations once again to all you enthusiasts of the medically weird. This is Kevin, back for another installment of CEPI Curiosities, our monthly journey down the rabbit hole of medical curiosities. Past installments have examined such varied topics as anti-drug cartoon specials, the differences between venom and poison, medical experiments on inmates, and health-related video games.

Regular readers will perhaps recall from my article way back in March on the stealing of Shakespeare’s and Mozart’s skulls that I briefly touched upon phrenology, the since-discredited practice of measuring character based on the shape and contours of the skull. If you recall, the impetus behind anatomist Joseph Hyrtl’s famous skull collection (located at the Mütter Museum for your perusal) was to disprove phrenology. However, phrenology was not the only attempt by scientists of the time to find a direct correlation between personality and physical appearance. Allow me to introduce you to physiognomy.

Where phrenology examines the entire skull, physiognomy is the act of using the physical characteristics of the face as a measure of personal character. Conceptually, the practice dates back to ancient Greece, and one of the oldest mentions of it comes from the Physiognomonica, a text attributed to Aristotle although his authorship of the treatise has been highly disputed. Aristotle or not, the author argued in favor of a direct quantifiable connection between the body and the soul. According to the author:

MENTAL character is not independent of and unaffected by bodily processes, but is conditioned by the state of the body; and contrariwise the body is sympathetically influenced by affections of the soul.

While the concept is an old one, the height of its popularity came in the late 18th and early 19th century (roughly around the same time of phrenology’s popularity). This time around the most influential name in the practice was a Swiss theologian by the name of Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801). His signature work on the subject was Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe, a sprawling, four-volume tome published between 1775 and 1778. An English translation with the less word-intensive title Essays in Physiognomy appeared in the 1790s and went through multiple editions through the 19th century.

Image of Johann Kasper Lavater, 17th century advocate of physiognomy

Source: Wikimedia Commons

As with its skull-fixated, pseudoscientific cousin, observations related to physiognomy originated by examining animals. Advocates of physiognomy believed each species held certain innate qualities (the lion as noble, the fox as crafty, the sloth as lazy, etc.) and that these qualities manifested themselves in some facial characteristic. The goal of the human physiognomist (that is the physiognomist examining humans, not a physiognomist who was also a human, although they would be that as well) was to look for manifestations of those physical traits in their human subjects. Lavater’s analyses were exhaustive, complete with images of various faces and the characteristics they represented. My favorite of which, from a condensed version of his work from 1832 titled The Pocket Lavateris recreated below:

An image of a face depicted in the physiognomy book titled The Pocket Lavater. The face was to represent cruelty and deception.

Watch out for this fellow!

So what to look for in a person, aside from the nefarious scoundrel above? First and foremost, Lavater argued there was a direct correlation between a person’s physical attractiveness and their moral character. In other words, the better one looked on the outside, the better they were on the inside. As Lavater explains, “It being granted that man is the work of supreme wisdom, is it not infinitely more conformable to wisdom that a harmony between physical and moral beauty rather should than should not exist; and that the Author of all moral perfection should testify his high good pleasure by the conformity between the mental and bodily faculties?” (Essays on Physiognomy 95). He goes on to add, “The beauty and deformity of the countenance is in a just and determinate proportion to the moral beauty and deformity of the man. The morally best, the most beautiful. The morally worst, the most deformed” (99). Furthermore, Lavater argued that a person’s moral character in life also left visual cues on the visage, as in the case of the miserly fellow below:

Caricature of a miserly man, from Johann Kasper Lavater's Essays in Physiognomy

Nature forms no such countenance; at least, no such mouth. Vice can only thus disfigure. Rooted unbounded avarice. Thus does brutal insensibility deform God’s own image. Enormous depravity has destroyed all the beauty, all the resemblance. Can any benevolent, wise, or virtuous man, look or walk, thus? Where is the man, however unobservant, daring enough to maintain the affirmative? (Lavater 110)

This aspect of physiogonomy made its way into mainstream popular culture through English author and playwright Oscar Wilde’s classic 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian GrayA friend of Gray, a handsome, young socialite, paints him a portrait. As the years go on, Gray comes to realize the painting has begun to age instead of him. Moreover, he further learns that ill deeds, such as driving a spurned lover to suicide and Gray’s murder of the portrait’s painter, lead to physical distortions on the face in the painting.

Going back to our original question of what to look for in a person, here are some stray observations. Clean teeth indicated good character but “long teeth” meant cowardice. Conforming to the logic of comic book superheroes, courage was directly proportional to one’s chin size; however, a pointed chin was a sign of artistic creativity. A large head demonstrated low intelligence. Small nostrils meant one was timid. Earnest character could be measured based on how close a person’s eyebrows were to their eyes. Speaking of eyes, the old adage of the eyes serving as the windows to the soul took on literal meaning in the work of Lavater and his disciples: brown eyes indicated kindness and vivacity, while blue eyes meant weakness, and the rare person who had gray eyes was temperamental and prone to anger.

As with phrenology, physiognomy was both shaped by and helped to shape racial and cultural prejudices of their time. White Europeans in certain regions were assumed a priori to be inherently superior than other races (for Lavater, ancient Greeks of the era of Socrates possessed the ideal facial form), and advocates of racist ideology turned to phrenology and physiognomy as scientific justifications for racial prejudice. I should also add that Lavater’s observations only applied to men, as women’s role, according to Lavater, was solely as complimentary and subservient to men (among his observations of women: “A woman with a beard is not so disgusting as a woman who acts the free thinker”).

Keen observers can see many of the same flaws between physiognomy and phrenology. They are both beliefs that based a great deal on assumptions are are difficult, if not impossible, to prove scientifically (how do you quantitatively measure a person’s honesty by measuring, say, the length of the bridge of their nose; how do you measure for courage in lions). It was a conclusion reached by anatomist Joseph Hyrtl who found no evidence of any common characteristics of criminality when he examined the skulls of dozens of European criminals.

Image of the Hyrtl Skull Collection at the Mütter Museum

Speaking of scientific challenges to physiognomy, in our next issue we will look at one influential scientist who studied the human face…by rigging electrodes to people’s faces to see what happened.

Until next time, catch you on the strange side!

Project Voice 2016: Philly Youth Made Their Political Voices Heard

Logo for Project Voice: a skeleton from a Vesalius image lost in thought as it casts a vote into a ballot box.

We are one day away from the end of an exciting, acrimonious, and downright unusual Presidential campaign. This has given CEPI a unique opportunity to help prepare the future architects of public policy. To that end, this past Saturday, we hosted a special event for our youth programs called Project Voice 2016. We invited students from the Karabots Junior Fellows Program and Teva Pharmaceuticals Internship Program to come and get a glimpse into the political process by designing their own political parties and hosting an election. We divided the students into two political parties and hosted “conventions,” where they designed their own party platform, developed a party brand (including a name and logo) and nominated their own candidates. It was up to our parties to decide which were the most important issues facing our country, choosing from such contentious topics as student loans, economic inequality, and police brutality; they then debated over how their party would solve the issues facing our country. It was a marvel to watch them work out important issues; something that the two major American parties can take note of given this year’s election’s heavy focus on personalities over issues. The parties also went through the nomination process, wherein they chose a candidate to represent their platform.

CEPI youth debate which issues will be part of their party platform during the Project Voice 2016 event

Students sit around a long table in the Gross conference room to develop a platform for their political party as part of the Project Voice 2016 event

The event culminated in a showdown between the two party nominees in which they took part in a brief debate. They explained their party’s plans for the future and why they should be elected to an audience of volunteers from the University of Pennsylvania, who acted as undecided voters. This was then followed by our voters casting ballots for our candidates. After some networking between our candidates and our intrepid volunteers, we announced a winner. The decision was a close one, decided by a mere two votes!

Student candidates present their party platforms to an audience of undecided voters at the Project Voice 2016 event

Our students learned the challenges of deciding which issues are important and how to convince others to believe in their plan of action. In doing so, they gained some hands-on insight into the world of politics.

Photo of Viviana, a student in the Karabots Junior Fellows Program, who is wearing a top hat to commemorate her victory in the Project Voice 2016 election.

Our winning candidate: Viviana



Boos, Brains, Safety and Support

Participants of the "boos and Brains" event hosted by the Out4STEM Program pose with homemade masks

It is the goal of the Out4STEM program to provide a safe, friendly environment for Philly LGBTQ+ Youth who are interested in STEM. CEPI’s recent event, “Boos and Brains” epitomized this sentiment by creating a space for youth to come share their coming out experiences. A collection of high schoolers, college students, and med school students along with young professionals, including members of Project HOME and Penn Medicine, gathered to discuss different studies on where sexuality originates in the brain. Some shared their coming out stories, explaining how “out” they were and whether that differed when they were with family or friends. In keeping with the pre-Halloween theme, they also had the chance to design their own masks representing the faces they put on to the world versus the one they keep for themselves; however, the “masking and unmasking” took place more in their conversations with each other and the support they gave to those who were not “out” for various reasons. The friendly, supportive atmosphere epitomized the goals of the Out4STEM program.

The event was also featured in a recent issue of Philadelphia Gay News.

Clipping from Philadelphia Gay News displaying four participants holding skulls and jack-o-lanterns at the Out4STEM event Boos and Brains.