Zurich psychiatrist and author, Jürg Willi, likes to tell a good story. In this case, however, the medium he uses to recount the amazing history of Professor Jakob Pilzbarth is not print but a small museum in Baden.
The museum is called "Musée Bizarre" and Willi, who owns and operates it, has turned the former factory building into a home for the fantastic, grotesque, imaginative, ironic and purely fictive.
Willi uses the Pilzbarth story as a platform to get across a couple of messages to visitors. One has to do with the eagerness with which people tend to embrace the ideas of self-proclaimed gurus, particularly in psychiatry.
"We want to stimulate a certain critical attitude against the seduction by gurus," Willi told swissinfo.
The other message concerns gene technology. While not an outright opponent of gene technology, Willi levels irony-clad criticism against it and the pretentions of its supporters to be able to change mankind.
The museum exhibition features a collection of life-size, semi-human models in various stages of metamorphosis and recreates the laboratory and apparatus Professor Pilzbarth is said to have used at the end of the 19th century in his efforts to transform humanity.
As the story goes Pilzbarth, a Swiss from canton Thurgau, first expounded his ideas about helping mankind reach the next improved stage of evolution when he was teaching in Vienna.
Following Pilzbarth's expulsion from Vienna, says Willi, he came to Baden where he opened a spa centre.
Willi says Pilzbarth's process of transformation involved first taking a volunteer through a phase of regression. Through a combination of deep hypnosis and electro-therapy called "morpholysis", Pilzbarth could turn people into reptiles, birds, pigs, dogs and deer. These were known as "metamorphytes".
Pilzbarth was swamped by people wanting to change. He became a celebrity, won an award in the United States and was celebrated by anthropologists.
But it wasn't long before murmurs of discontent were heard. An anti-Pilzbarth party was created called "Yes to humanity." The authorities stepped in, closed the operation in Baden and put the "metemorphytes" into an asylum. Pilzbarth was tried and sentenced for crimes against humanity.
It's pure fiction, says Willi. Pilzbarth and his metamorphytes are a figment of the psychiatrist's imagination and the artistic talents of Margaretha Dubach who created the display.
At least Willi thought it was pure invention until someone pointed out a puzzling reference to Pilzbarth in a German work called "Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Scientific Theory." This could, however, be a joke entry, says Willi.
The Musée Bizarre in Baden is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 11-5 and Wednesdays from 2-6.
by Paul Sufrin