Mummified 'Soap Lady' No Urban Legend
[Original headline: Team unraveling
mystery of mummified 'Soap Lady']
PHILADELPHIA [AP] -- Sometime in the 19th century, a fat woman died and her body changed almost entirely into
It may sound like an urban legend, but researchers are serious. On Thursday, they performed a CT scan on the
woman's mummified body hoping to learn more about the process that turns some corpses into a waxy, soaplike substance called
The body, dubbed "Soap Lady," has been on display for more than a century at the Mutter Museum, a former haven
for medical students but now a Philadelphia tourist attraction featuring thousands of medical oddities.
The CT scan unexpectedly revealed some organ tissue, raising hope that researchers might be able to learn
how the woman died.
"There's tons of stuff in there," said Gerald Conlogue, a Quinnipiac University professor of diagnostic imaging.
"What we may be looking at is a shell or casing made out of this soapy substance sealing out the outside environment."
Conlogue said the results will give researchers greater understanding of saponification, the chemical conversion
of fat into adipocere.
Saponification is an unusual occurrence, dependent on factors such as humidity, temperature, the presence
of clothing and bacterial activity.
The fatter the person, the greater the chance saponification will occur.
Thursday's scan was the first time the Soap Lady had left her wooden display table since 1874, when a prominent
University of Pennsylvania anatomist named Dr. Joseph Leidy donated the body to the museum.
Leidy said that the Soap Lady, who was discovered by workers removing bodies from an old burial yard, died
in the late 1700s.
"The woman, named Ellenbogen, died in Philadelphia of yellow fever in 1792 and was buried near Fourth and
Race Streets," according to the original label attached to the exhibit.
Leidy's explanation stood until 1942, when museum curator Joseph McFarland determined the Soap Lady had actually
died in the 1800s and that her name had been lost to history.
McFarland could find no record of any yellow fever deaths in Philadelphia in 1792. A yellow fever epidemic
did strike the city in 1793, but the name "Ellenbogen" appeared nowhere on an official list of the dead. Furthermore, there
was never a cemetery at Fourth and Race.
A 1987 X-ray of the mummy showed eight straight pins and two four-hole buttons manufactured in the 19th century.
"At this point, we know less about her than we thought we did before," said Gretchen Worden, the Mutter's
The CT scan, a computer-enhanced image of areas that cannot be seen by X-ray, was taped for a new television
series called "The Mummy Road Show," premiering Oct. 5 on the National Geographic Channel.
The filming made for a bizarre scene: With the television crew and museum workers eating cheese steak sandwiches
a few feet away, the blackened mummy slowly passed through a portable CT scanner in a Mutter side room filled with large oil
portraits of long-dead Philadelphia physicians.
The Mutter was founded in 1849 by the Philadelphia College of Physicians, which still operates it. Its exhibits
include malformed skeletons, a 27-foot-long human colon and a plaster cast of Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker.
•Story originally published by:
Contra Costa Times, Walnut Creek / CA | Michael Rubinkam - Sep 29.01
republished from FarShores News
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