Thirty Thousand Streets

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Hunterian Museum

I went to the Hunterian museum this Saturday gone, which is situated a (sling-shot) stone's throw away from the John Soames house, on the Southern Side of a garden square in Holborn. It was as part of an illustration short course I've been doing, and the purpose of the trip was visual research, sketching and drawing.

It's actually within The Royal College of surgeons, and, in a nutshell, is a collection of surgical artifacts, including paintings, antique instruments from the operating theatre (which looked like they could have doubled as tickle-sticks for the Spanish Inquisition) to the core of the collection – banks of display cases containing a variety of organic specimens, from skeletons to dissected fauna to human anatomy.

No photography was allowed (due to the sanctity of human remains, y'dig?), so unfortunately you'll have to make do with my drawing of a crumbling syphilitic skull. But take my word for it – this is a pretty amazing little museum.

It's centred around the collection of the distinguised surgeon and anatomist John Hunter, which the government purchased in 1799 and presented to the college. Hunter was (to quote Wikipedia) 'an early advocate of careful observation', which is borne out by the miscellany presented here, assembled for reference, which orginally constituted the contents of a museum in Leicester Square. To be blunt though, and scientific merits aside, much of its allure for me did lie in the 'grue' factor inherent in wandering through chambers populated by centuries old limbs and biological oddities suspended in fomaldehyde. In fact, it wouldn't be too hyperbolic to call some of it a bit 'freakshow', if one is assuming the word freak to denote anomalous, as some of the exhibits are indeed mutations – such as the two-tailed lizard and the four-legged chick – only these are very much real, rather than some sideshow bit of fakery (though the skeleton of 'The Irish Giant' Charles Byrne suggests its previous owner wouldn't have looked out of place in Todd Browning's carnie classic, Freaks).

Highlights for me included (in no particular order):

Watching a video where a team or brain surgeons excised a tumour made me all the more admiring of their consummate skill, as well as glad I didn't have the Pret Meatball Ragu sandwich for lunch.

The club owned by one on the 'Beadles' responsible for transporting the remains of executed felons to the college for dissection (perceived as a horrible fate by the underclasses). It's a kind of wooden belaying pin with iron flanges, presumably used to repel irate rellies of the deceased.

Some stereoscopes attached to a wall displaying before and after cases of early 'plastic' surgery to first world war casualties, a reminder if ever one was needed that trench warfare 'ain't great' especially on the frontline, with assorted bits of metal hurtling about at high velocity.

An early device for removal of gall stones. Most of the surgical instruments look like more tarnished versions of things I'd glimpsed in David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, but this little bit of steel joy is something else. Supposedly an early example of 'non invasive' surgery, it probably helped gave rise to the surgeon's phrase of the day 'Lord if thou take me, do it not through the bladder". I'm not going to even try and explain it here – pets might be reading.

Charles Babbage's brain. Yep, that's right, a section of brain previously belonging to the man often referred to as a 'father of the computer' can be found bobbing round in an unassuming fashion in a jar in Holborn. Apparently they've got two other bits out back, and his family were quite 'up for it'.

That should hopefully have piqued your 'appetite anyway'. I think there's some other bits in the college to check out, but this section is, in itself, is a fascinating window onto a historical period in medicene, and nascent surgical techniques (as well as lots of things that look like they're out of that film Aliens). It's free, as well, so even if you're feeling 'the pinch of the crunch' you can justify mooching on over for an afternoon. Plus kids will probably love it if it doesn't scare them witless.

1 comment:

Zeno Cosini said...

Sounds amazing. I might take Zac this Saturday, tell Sam it's a kind of Victorian petting zoo.

Ah, pre-20th century surgery sans anaesthetic. There's a lot of anguish in Pepys' diaries about gallbladder operation he had to have when he was in (I think) his late thirties. The thing was balancing the pain of the gallstone against the risk of the operation, where lack of hygiene meant that something approaching 50% of patients (I think - perhaps a little less) died at the time of post-operative infections.

There's a weird fact in Richard Holmes's (amazing) recent book The Age of Wonder, about Humphry Davies's experiments with laughing gas, where he basically discovered it had anaesthetic properties in 1799, but no-one, including Davey, actually thought to use it for operations for another fifty or so years. Somehow, it didn't occur to anyone, because the fact of pain during surgery had always been such a given.