Many years ago, my parents took me to the Hunterian Museum during a trip to London. I cannot remember what I expected beforehand, but I was certainly fascinated by the esoteric medical exhibits. Particularly amazing were:
- The Evelyn tables: a collection of four anatomical displays thought to be the oldest in Europe, having been bought by John Evelyn in Padua, 1646. As a set, they show the spinal cord and nerves, vagi and sympathetic nerves, veins of the lungs and liver, aorta and arteries, and organisation of veins. Evelyn said that they had been prepared by Giovanni Leoni, and described how, having removed “the veins and other vessels which contain the blood, spirits, etc., out of the humane bodys…, [he] begun to distend and apply them on tables according to their natural proportion and situation, as an Improvement which might be of Use for Anatomy.” The skill to produce such a specimen, especially considering the limited resources that surgeons had at the time, is amazing. They struck me as much works of art as anatomy, and their lack of detail renders them more fascinating by indicating how much more medicine has revealed over time. An interesting comparison is with the museum’s arteries of a baby from 1962.
- The collection of human foetuses at various stages of development. I found it really interesting to see how a foetus’ features develop over time. However, I was interested to see that a pregnant woman looking at the exhibits nearby was looking rather shocked.
- The face of a child who died of smallpox in the late 18th century.
- The skeletons of the 7’7″ Irish Giant Charles Byrne, of whom my grandparents have a picture, and Mr Jeffs, who died from a disease called fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, or “the disease that turns you to stone”. This rare genetic disease ossifies fibrous tissue creating extra-skeletal bone. As a result of seeing Mr Jeffs’ skeleton, I gave a presentation at school about it (see later in my blog).