Friday, April 13, 2012

Visiting the Hunterian Museum

I have always been enthralled by dissection and the appearance of well-dissected specimens. It's a strange kind of art form: the structure is already there, formed by the hand of Nature, so the artist's job is not to create something new, but to reveal something hidden. In school I participated in biology competitions where we trained on dissecting earthworms, cockroaches, flowers, and the like, while in college I had a memorable experience cutting open a gravid dogfish with a friend.

But the enthusiastic hacking of amateurs and students is one thing, while the preparation of display specimens is another. The Hunterian Museum is one of the most well-known collections of its kind. It's owned by the Royal College of Surgeons of England, and was originally put together by John Hunter, the famed 18th century anatomist and surgeon, some of whose exploits have been described before on this blog. I recently got to visit the museum because I was in London, and despite it being a relatively small collection (two thirds of the original collection was lost by bombing during World War II), I spent more than 2 hours wandering around. Unfortunately photography is forbidden, so no photos this time.

Used for both teaching and research, it is notable for its bringing together of both human and non-human (including plants!) specimens in a systematic arrangement. Unlike most museums of the time, which arranged things in a taxonomic layout (according to classification), Hunter arranged his museum to demonstrate his ideas of comparative physiology and anatomy. For example: flowers, eggs, uteruses would be brought together in one case under the heading "organs of reproduction". What struck me was the range of non-human material that was present. I had read about this before, but actually seeing the collection led me to appreciate how deeply Hunter was trying to draw analogies between the different classes of life (before the advent of evolution theory), which is a project that biologists today are still working on.

There were lots of children with their parents, when I was visiting. One would think that a young child would be terrified of seeing recognizable pieces of people (some of the specimens were stained and looked quite lifelike), but I don't think most of them were too put off by it. Perhaps the sheer quantity of stuff to see distracted them from the particularly morbid examples. One case that did give many visitors some pause was the display of human fetuses at various stages of development. I heard one parent mutter "that can't be right...."

Halfway through my visit, the children trooped off to hear a presentation in period costume about 18th century surgeons, and I was left in near-silence again, with a few other people who were sitting on stools and making drawings. In the upper floor of the gallery are the pathological specimens, collected to demonstrate the different diseases and abnormalities that a practicing surgeon might encounter. Some of these show how "nasty, brutish, and short" life was like before antibiotics and modern medicine: skulls devastated by syphilis, spines bent over by tuberculosis. The smallpox exhibit was especially heartbreaking, because it contained half the face of a child victim of smallpox, to illustrate the scarring. It was injected with red dye to stain the arteries, but that also gave a rosy glow to the cheeks.

Another disconcerting thing is seeing specimens that come from named persons: a cancerous tumor from Miss Somebody, a diseased body-part from Lord Someplace. Hunter was a surgical innovator, but that also meant that many patients died anyway, and their body parts would end up in his collection.

Hunter's skill in anatomical preparation, and the care taken by conservators in the years since, have kept much of the collection in very good shape. I marveled especially at the dissections of invertebrates to demonstrate the nervous system: one of the most challenging things to display in a tiny animal. Sadly, the anatomist's art is in defiance of nature: to unveil the concealed, to prevent decay, and to simulate the appearance of life. Even if specimens are well conserved and do not decay, plenty of work is involved, and they are ever prone to destruction because most are highly flammable and fragile. One photograph on display from 1941 shows the aged retired curator Arthur Keith helping to salvage from the wreckage after the bombing, beside a bust of Richard Owen, the 19th century anatomist, poking out from the rubble. An anatomist's lifetime's work could be easily reduced to ashes within minutes, but on reflection, it is the knowledge gained that is most precious. The medical anatomists are fortunate in that their hard-won learning is valuable to society and is therefore carefully passed on. The comparative biology of other organisms, however, suffers from a lack of qualified taxonomists and specialists in many groups. Even today we need more people like John Hunter, who are driven to seek out the connections between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the immediately relevant and the merely philosophical.

(For those who are visiting London: The museum is free, and is open Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10 am to 5 pm. It is located beside Lincoln's Inn Fields; the nearest Tube stop is Holborn.)

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