20 January 2013

Hunting for Bodies

A Saturday when the snow was melting to muddy slush and the glisten of frost was fading to grey, a dank and dreary day, so we went to see thousands of glittering jars in a central-heated museum in the upstairs of a grand pillar-flanked institution set in the still snow-covered Lincoln's Inn Fields. Gawping at bits of body preserved in liquid that shined like amber in the artificial light is the only thing to do on such a bitter afternoon. We came to this conclusion having visited The Hunterian Museum yesterday, a little weaker in the knees but our heads swimming with fleshy flaps of skin, fragile scraps of membrane, ragged threads of veins...

Set at the top of the portrait-lined staircase of the Royal College of Surgeons, The Hunterian Museum lures in those cursed with morbid curiosity. The first wall shows four anatomical tables - boards slightly larger than a person with human-shaped maps of arteries, veins, circulatory systems pasted onto the grain of the thick wood, carefully dissected from the dead then stuck like fine blood-embroideries - which were prepared for the diarist John Evelyn in Padua in 1646. The vast majority of all the preparations and specimens in the museum were collected and displayed by John Hunter (1728-1793). The Scottish surgeon was dyslexic, so instead of reading about his craft and learning lots of inherited silly ideas, he garnered all his knowledge from observing, cutting, dissecting, poking, bleeding, preserving as much of the living (or, indeed, dead) world as he could get his hands on. The collection at The Hunterian is evidence of this.

Dissection of executed murderers was deemed acceptable, and the slightly less acceptable practice of grave-robbing abounded, but John Hunter also performed post-mortems on may of his close friends and family members, and was himself dissected after his death. His curiosity and quest for anatomical understanding knew no bounds. One such instance of this was the case of Charles Byrne, the 'Irish Giant'. He was 7'7" and made appearances at entertainments for money throughout his life. He had apparently wanted to be buried at sea, but Hunter purchased Byrne's body for £130 and displayed the skeleton. This now looms large in the museum, next to a much smaller and deformed skeleton, that of Mr Jeffs. This had been buried for many years before a man named George Harking acquired it. Hunter then bought it at auction as he was fascinated by the rare condition Mr Jeffs had suffered from. Fibrodysplasia causes bone to form in muscles, tendons and other connective tissue, so the skeleton has bone mass where one would not expect, as though bone blossomed from branches of rib and trunk of spine.

Other treats include a four-legged chick, a two-tailed lizard, pulp from the incisor of a horse, the healing stump of an amputated leg, three-inch long coagulated lymph coughed up by a patient, graphic illustrations of lithotomy, the beak of a squid which was caught by the naturalist Joseph Banks during Captain Cook's first voyage... Banks gave the beak to Hunter and the rest of the squid was eaten by Cook's crew.

And there are many, many foetuses. Of a rhesus monkey, an armadillo, a porcupine, an aardvark, a guinea pig, unidentified rodents. And humans. I struggled to look. Then I couldn't look away. Three-, four-, and five-month-formed foetuses. Then larger jars for the couple of eight-month-formed, then larger still for the one full-term baby that had not had a chance to escape the womb and breathe it's first breath. Forever in a bell-jar, oddly calm and blank-faced. Next to this was a case holding quintuple foetuses from a premature birth. Five months formed then born too soon. The local doctor, John Hull, was told he could take the foetuses but not the placenta. This was burnt. Heaven forbid he take a placenta.

I would recommend watching this short video of a very cool dude presenting a glimpse of the museum. The warm glow of all life fixed yet floating in hundreds and hundreds of jars, glass reflecting awe-struck eyes, draws pulse-twitching, blood-pumping, air-gulping beings into a treasure trove of fleshy gems. And it's free.

1 comment:

Chris said...

That video is a hoot!