London is old and full of dead people. Most of them are out of sight, decomposing under ground. Some are not. Some are on display for all to see — or at least parts of them are. The most famous visible dead person is the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, whose bones, padded with clothes, and topped with a wax replica of his head, sit in a display case at University College London.
Even more dead body parts can be found at the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, which is celebrating its 200th birthday this year. That’s two centuries of collecting, preserving, and displaying skulls, bones, limbs, hands, and various other organs.
The museum started out as the collection of surgeon John Hunter. He’s one of the founders of modern day surgery, but his Wikipedia page also highlights one of his mistakes: he inoculated himself with gonorrhea in an experiment – no wait, that’s not yet the mistake! – but didn’t realize the sample was contaminated with syphilis as well. When he contracted both diseases, he assumed they were both the same, and set back our knowledge of venereal diseases a few years. Oops.
As a surgeon, he also made and collected thousands of preparations of plant and animal species, to learn more about the natural world. A lot of his samples were of diseased or malformed human body parts, which allowed him and others to study these conditions.
A controversial centrepiece of the collection is the skeleton of 18th century giant Charles Byrne. Afraid of being used for medical experiments, Byrne had requested to be buried at sea, but when he died, John Hunter bribed a member of the funeral party to steal Byrne’s body. Now his skeleton stands in the Hunterian.
If you’re in London, you should definitely check out this collection, but the museum also has a lot of information on their site, including this video made for their bicentennial celebrations:
Images: Woodcut by Sheperd and Radclyffe [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and Hunterian Collection by Paul Dean (CC-BY-SA)
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