Hunterian Museum, London | Look Up London

Visit The Hunterian Museum

The Hunterian Museum, one of London’s best niche museums, reopened last week.

Sat within the Royal College of Surgeons on Lincoln’s Inn Fields, it charts the development of surgery and pursuit of medical knowledge through the centuries.

Hunterian Museum, London | Look Up London

Tables prepared with blood vessels and nerves, made c.1640s these are the earliest surviving anatomical preparations in the world made by Giovanni Leoni d’Este, Dissector to the Professor of Anatomy at Padua University, Italy. Bought by John Evelyn in 1646

If that sounds a bit dry, think again. It’s packed with medical marvels, jars of specimens and gives an insight into the macabre and morally dubious quest for understanding the human body.

Its namesake is John Hunter, the pioneering anatomist and surgeon who was as eccentric as he was impressive.

Hunterian Museum, London | Look Up London

Born in Scotland into a family of nine children, six of his siblings went to an early grave as did his father. In 1748 he moved to London to work alongside his ambitious brother to assist him with his anatomy lectures in Covent Garden.

While his bother William sought to ingratiate himself into society and would eventually rise to the respectable post of ‘physician’, John was happy to be seen as unorthodox – even downright dangerous by some. He rejected the traditional medical education of ancient texts, preferring to question everything and conduct practical tests for himself.

In the end both brothers would have hugely successful medical careers and each create their own Hunterian Museums, William in Glasgow and John in London.

Hunterian Museum, London | Look Up London

Prosthetic glass eyes by Mollie Surman, mid-1900s

The Hunterian Museum was a favourite of mine before it closed in 2017 so I’m happy to report it remains as fascinating as ever. However the reorganisation of the collection has allowed for a more sensitive curatorial approach and further context of some of the specimens. There’s also far detail about the life and London career of John.

Over his lifetime, John Hunter amassed over 14,000 specimens of animal and human tissue. These were mostly dissected then prepared by his own hands, used as learning aids for the surgical students who came to his anatomy school in Leicester Square.

The British government bought his collection in 1799 and it was housed by the Company of Surgeons (now the Royal College of Surgeons). On 11 May 1941 the College was hit by a high explosive bomb and only one third of the collection survived.

Arthur Keith, Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons who had retired but returned to help, combing the rubble of the bombed Museum in 1941

It includes just over 3,000 original specimens collected by John Hunter.

Within the museum photography of the human specimens is – quite rightly – banned and the exhibits exert an uneasy balance between grim fascination and downright disgust.

Hunterian Museum, London | Look Up London
Wax anatomical modern of a human head, torso and abdomen by Joseph Towne, modeller at Guy’s Hospital from 1826-1879

There’s also the moral question of how did these body parts get here?

During John Hunter’s lifetime the only legal source of dead bodies for dissection were the six corpses earmarked for the Company of Barber Surgeons, a system in place since 1540.

But this wasn’t always full proof. In 1587 a hanged man was being dissected on the table of the Barber-Surgeons’ hall when – as the knife cut into his chest – he burst back in to life! The unfortunate man lived for another three days before dying (again).

Skipping into the 18th century, dozens of people were executed each year in the capital. So aside for the six supposedly for this one source. there were plenty more condemned to intercept between gallows and grave.

The other option was grave-robbing, a practice with which Hunter would become deeply familiar, acquiring several thousands cadavers over his lifetime.

Two men placing the shrouded corpse which they have just disinterred into a sack while Death, as a nightwatchman holding a lantern, grabs one of the grave-robbers from behind. Coloured drawing by T. Rowlandson, 1775

John never faced any legal action for these pursuits and even directly mentions this source in some of his notes, “Sept 1758. In this Autumn we got a stout man for his muscles from St George’s ground”.

After a design by Rowlandson, ca. 1790. It’s thought to depict William Hunter (standing in a grey coat, left with John Hunter at his elbow in yellow) in their Covent Garden dissecting room.

Another source was the grateful patients themselves, with many agreeing to donate their body – or the afflicted part of it – to him on their death.

This was the case for John Burley, the 37-year old with a 4kg tumour on the side of his neck. Enduring a 25 minute surgery (no pain relief, remember) Hunter noted that Burley “did not cry out during the whole operation”.

The before and after drawings (below) are remarkable and the tumour itself can be seen in the museum.

As you ponder the specimens it does make you thankful for these volunteers – knowing or otherwise – who contributed to the progression of modern surgery today.`

The sheer number of pale, floating specimens is fairly overwhelming en masse.

Hunterian Museum, London | Look Up London

But care has been taken to elaborate on the background of certain stories, including the case of Mr Enderby’s monkey.

Hunterian Museum, London | Look Up London

When Hunter heard his friend’s pet monkey was pregnant, he asked to witness the birth. During labour, he recorded that the monkey “assisted herself with her fore paws” but because the baby was born breach (“the infant emerged with the hind parts first”) it died soon after. He also noted that despite this, “when delivered she took the young one up, and although it was dead clasped it to her breast”.

In this instance Hunter was a simple observer but throughout his life he would experiment on live animals, pinned down on his dissecting table.

Even at the time not everyone agreed with the “varieties of cruelty” inflicted on animals in the name of scientific progress. Dr Samuel Johnson railed against the “race of wretches … whose favourite amusement is to nail dogs to tables and open them alive“ (The Idler August 1758).

But that didn’t stop Hunter pursuing test subjects. 

Hunterian Museum, London | Look Up London

In 1765 John had earned enough money to buy a house in Earl’s Court, then a rural village in West London. Now with the space for storage and experiments he started acquiring a menagerie of exotic animals including a leopard, mongoose, two crocodiles, a monkey and a mongoose. He took home the carcass of a whale that washed up on the Thames and cheerfully accepted an elephant donated by Queen Charlotte!

He lived at Earls Court until his death in 1793. It was bought by another family in 1829 then demolished in 1886. You can view an image here.

Sadly, the other major London building connected to John Hunter was also demolished in 1892.

In 1783 John and his wife, Anne moved into a new home created from combining two houses, 28 Leicester Square and 13 Castle Street.

Hunterian Museum, London | Look Up London

As well as a respectable family home it also had the unusual addition of a massive lecture theatre and dissecting room (not to mention the drawbridge on the Castle Street end where fresh cadavers were deliver under cover of darkness!)

The location of the house is highlighted in yellow below on the R Horwood 1799 map.

Image credit:

Today is the Wetherspoon’s pub, Moon Under Water. You can have a close look at the reconstruction of the house online here

Image credit: Google Maps

Moving on from the 18th century, the museum progresses through medical leaps and one breathes a sigh of relief with the discovery of sterilisation and anaesthesia.

The last thing on display is the preserved heart of a woman called Jennifer. She underwent a transplant and there’s a video interviewing her and her surgeon about the experience.

I found the combination of real voices alongside the lonely organ oddly emotional. It was a poignant way to end the experience and made me very thankful for modern medicine. 

Hunterian Museum, London | Look Up London

Visit the Hunterian Museum

The Hunterian Museum is within the Royal College of Surgeons on Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Holborn. Entry to the museum is free but due to demand they now recommend pre-booking a ticket here. It’s open Tuesday to Saturday: 10am – 5pm.

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1 Comment

  • Wendy Johnson


    This reminds me of the book called The Girl in His Shadow by Audrey Blake. Experiments on grave-robbed bodies.

    May 24, 2023 at 2:42 pm

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