Nestled in the quiet square of Lincoln’s Inn Fields is one of London’s most interesting collections. Walk up to the second floor of the Royal College of Surgeons, the Hunterian Museum is free and open to all who possess the stomach for it. An exploration of the gruesome but not for the sake of novelty — for the sake of science.
As you walk into the Royal College of Surgeons and ascend the grand, carpeted staircase to the second floor, portraits of great masters of surgery line the walls. It sets you up for a much more conservative experience, instead of the unmediated one you actually experience. Aside from a showcase of various surgical equipment through the ages, the Hunterian Museum’s greatest attraction is the Crystal Gallery, one that hosts over 3,000 anatomical specimens from floating foetus’s to severed chimp heads. It’s the house of horrors you’ve always wanted to see, a chamber of curiosities of the natural world. Each of the specimens are meticulously placed in sealed glass jars, revealing the curling layers of a sheep’s inner stomach lining or the bulbous, cancerous growths on human male foreskin. Every look at each specimen will ebb away a little more of your initial horror and make you more aware of the nuances and the details within them. But once you look past them and take a step back, you can begin to appreciate the painstaking determination, will and archeological prowess of its founder — John Hunter.
The museum is a testament to John Hunter, a Scottish man born in 1728 in the humble outskirts of Glasgow, Scotland. He moved to London at the age of 20 to assist his older brother William on dissections and grew to become one of the greatest pioneers of anatomical science. Hailed as the father of modern surgery, he amassed a collection of over 14,000 specimens in his lifetime of both human and animal forms, diseased and healthy. His unrelenting ambition and obsessive experimentation gained Hunter a reputation as the ‘mad scientist’ using whatever methods necessary to find answers — once even injecting himself with syphilis and gonorrhea to assess the effects.
Hunter’s collection in the Crystal Gallery is organised in 2 classes: specimens that show bodily structures and functions (i.e. digestion system) or specimens that show reproduction and and development (i.e. foetus). Although the lower level of the Crystal Gallery is made up of those mainly from the animal world (maybe that’s why they leave most of the human anatomy upstairs, to ease you into it), it is also peppered with human specimens, showing how Hunter’s work on animals also influenced his work on humans, and vice versa.
Until the 18th century, most surgical practices were carried out by those with little understanding of the inner workings of the human body. It was culturally and spiritually taboo to dissect living beings and therefore surgery remained a crude and dark practice. Despite criticism, Hunter continued his work by any means necessary. His lifelong mission was to understand the basic principles of organic life and there was no living being he didn’t want to analyse. He regularly spent huge sums buying dead bodies, and his tirelessness for knowledge saw him become a frequent member of the underground worlds of grave-robbing and body-snatching.
In her book ‘The Knife Man’ (a biography of John Hunter), Wendy Moore explains that this mode of collection was normal, almost necessary. “Like all surgeons and anatomists of the time, Hunter had no lawful source for the majority of the bodies he daily dissected and he, like others, was forced to turn to underhand means to pursue his work.” These endeavours (regardless of the consequences) are seen through the showcase at the back end of the Crystal Gallery, in the form of the skeleton of Charles Byrne — better known as the ‘Irish Giant’.
It is difficult not to feel a twinge of sadness and a wash of shame when looking at the skeleton of the Irish Giant — whose dying wish was not to be showcased and gawked at in this voyeuristic manner. But Hunter’s push to make his body available and accessible for all made him disregard any moral reflection.
Amongst all the eye-opening insight that the Hunterian Museum provides, the experience wouldn’t be complete without the creeping conscience that settles towards the end of the experience. Understanding Hunter’s brilliant mind is clear, but navigating his moral compass, not so much. Does the disregard of some of the modes of collection he used outweigh the scientific developments that were produced from such a wealth of information? The ethics are murky.
Photographs of people line the inside square of the Crystal Gallery and if you take a moment to sit inside, you’ll start to hear the voices with these people. They are interviews, soundbites, speaking about their modern experiences of surgery — a subtle touch that brings the themes of the Hunterian Museum and contextualises it in the present day.
The Hunterian museum is John Hunter’s legacy — a legacy of his determination to pull surgery out of the realms of superstition and into the modern world of medicine. It is a demonstration to the ethos of trial and error and of the continuous, obsessive practice that is required for the development of science. Hunter’s philosophy was to always question the established doctrine, to work based on what he saw rather than what he thought. This essence of evidence-driven practice is explicit in the Hunterian museum.
Hunter’s dying wish was that his collection of anatomical specimens would be sold to the government for public benefit, so that all could have access to it. This dying wish still rings true today and over the years it now hosts more and more tourists eager to see the specimens, but it is still undoubtedly an unsung gem of London.
There is always one particular collection that gathers a crowd — the collection of human foetuses. This is what makes the Hunterian museum so special. It is the closest many people will ever get to seeing these things, seeing themselves.
The Hunterian museum requires you to look — to really look. It is beautiful, confrontational, and utterly disgusting, all at the same time. No photography is allowed and it is impossible to look away. Being at the Hunterian forces you to look right in the eye of the nature of the human condition — complex, fragile, and hanging in a glass jar of formaldehyde.