Bring on the bodies

Hydrocephalic skull, 19th century. The enlarged skull of a child suffering from hydrocephalus or 'water on the brain'

The conversation about the pros and cons of preserving organs in fluid barely falters as a curator slides into the laboratory at London’s Hunterian Museum brandishing a bone in a jar. “I’ve brought you a leg,” she says, depositing it on a bench among a miscellany of objects: a warthog skull with an enormous tumour at the end of its nose, several state-of-the-art replica brains used by trainee neurosurgeons – complete with authentic jellylike feel – and countless glass pots filled with everything from testes to tumours.

The simple pot could well serve as the symbol for the Hunterian at the Royal College of Surgeons. Once described as a “post-mortem palace”, the museum turns 200 this month and its pots contain a history of surgery and its specimens that ranges from gory Victoriana to the present day. Most are round and glass, though modern design has toyed with the acrylic square – visually more satisfying but prone to the occasional spraying of preservative fluid. For centuries, these formed the basis of surgical education. Anxious exam students would be presented with a bit of preserved flesh or bone and asked: “What’s that and how do you cure it?” The answer could be anything from a diseased jaw (animal or human), mutilated foot or hydrocephalic (“water on the brain”) skull.

Many of the earliest pots were filled by John Hunter, the surgeon whose collection of 14,000 specimens formed the basis of the museum that opened in 1813, 20 years after his death. Since then the collections have developed alongside the profession. Early oil paintings showing phenomena such as piebaldism give way to the game-changing antiseptic spray of Joseph Lister, followed by 1950s corrosion casts, made by injecting resin into organs to demonstrate the body’s cavities. “The resin … goes all the way into the tiniest little capillaries, so you need to sit and trim them as you would a bonsai tree,” says Samuel Alberti, the director of museums and archives.

The museum is part of the Royal College of Surgeons and, though 75,000 members of the public have visited a year since general entry was introduced in 2005, its tradition lies in teaching. “These days you have the model next to the specimen next to the training video next to the 3D simulation,” says Alberti. So a camel stomach preserved by Hunter demonstrates how the animal’s specialised cells store water and slowly release it. Hunter personally injected this one with colour to bring out the structures. “He boasted about being able to give ‘the breath of life’ to his specimens,” says Hayley Kruger, head of learning and access.

Not everything has survived intact. Catastrophic bomb damage during the second world war wiped out two-thirds of the by-then 75,000-strong collections, including the earliest gorilla specimens to arrive in Britain and, somewhat ironically, a war museum rolled out to train the Royal Army Medical Corps in the ways of trench foot and gunshot wounds. But new acquisitions arrive all the time. In 2000, the museum took delivery of a set of Winston Churchill’s dentures. Gold with mineral teeth, and surprisingly delicate, they were overseen by Churchill who, wary of losing his characteristic natural lisp, insisted that any work avoid changing his speech. The dentist created a small gap between the denture and the roof of his mouth. “His tongue would catch ever so slightly on the back and the result was that it would exacerbate his lisp a little,” says Milly Farrell, curator. “When I hear Sir Winston Churchill speaking, I actually do think about that denture.”

The collection is still actively used for research – thesis time can be a crunch period for curators – and many of its volunteers are retired surgeons. This can come as a surprise to some visitors: “You see the face of a younger surgeon who thought the person selling postcards was some old bloke, and they’ve just found out it’s a pioneer of x form of surgery,” says Kruger. Tours led by surgeons follow their specialisms: there are ones on conjoined twins, transplants, laparoscopic surgery and, for the syphilitically curious, one entitled “A night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury”.

Visitors happily horrified by this can also reflect on how two centuries have altered our own quality of life. One feels for the Victorian woman given the seemingly joke-shop treatment of a fake nose on a pair of spectacles when she lost her own to syphilis. But the story has a happy ending: she returned it when her new husband liked her better without. Even the artificial heart that bought patients a few precious hours in 1981 now appears antiquated.

Prosthetic nose, 1850s. A Victorian ‘treatment’ with a good outcome: the unfortunate owner later gave this nose back to her physician, stating that she had remarried – and that her new husband preferred her without it

Not so the Martyn or Modelled-Anatomical-Replica-for-Training-Young-Neurosurgeons, named after its co-creator, Martyn Cooke, head of conservation. This model is designed to mimic the look and feel of a real brain so that neurosurgeons can experience operating on the real thing. “When we did the first trial … there was a sort of sound effect that was very realistic as you’re pulling [the membrane] from the skull and the surgeons were revelling in this,” says Cooke. Its use at a recent public demonstration on how to remove a blood clot had a particularly dramatic effect. “When they were cutting through the skull, there were numerous fainters in the audience and several projectile vomiters,” Cooke adds, with some satisfaction.

In the 24 or so years that Cooke has been at the laboratory – “I lost count a long time ago” – the conservators have also manned the frontline against the main enemy of the collections: entropy. “There’s 60,000 specimens all obeying the laws of nature and gently deteriorating,” says Alberti. Cooke’s team work on several at once, topping up fluids, fixing tears and looking for new preservation methods. “You are often working on something that is irreplaceable. If we make a mess of what we’re doing, there’s no going back,” says Cooke.

The aim is to preserve the old while pushing forward with the new. Even as Cooke repairs a Hunterian-era specimen, he is thinking about the possibility of replicating carpal tunnel syndrome in models for hand surgeons. “I think there’ll always be something about looking at human remains,” says Alberti. “We’ve gone from amputation saws to antiseptic sprays to laparoscopic equipment and, in 200 years more, we’ll have whatever the 23rd-century surgeon is using.” Chances are, there’ll still be a pot or two around somewhere.

Alice Fishburn is deputy editor of FT Weekend Magazine. ‘Opened Up: 200 years of the Hunterian Museum’ runs until November 9; ‘Medical Museums: Past, Present, Future’, edited by Samuel J.M.M. Alberti and Elizabeth Hallam, Royal College of Surgeons, £25;

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