(at) The Royal College of Surgeons
Lincolns Inn Fields
London WC2A 3PE
Wednesday November 5 2014
I had thought that opting for this, after the vastness of the Tower and our as yet incomplete visit, we would be seeing a small and intimate collection rather on the lines of other medical museums (see The Old Operating Theatre and the Alexander Fleming Museum ) but no: the Hunterian Collection is most substantial and well displayed within the imposing building housing the Royal College of Surgeons. Like many other London-based venues, this one too does corporate hospitality and today seemed to be hosting not a group of would be ‘sawbones’ but mortgage lenders – I suppose a London property does cost an arm and a leg. But I digress. Our visit was preceded by an interview with an ‘Evening Standard’ reporter who had picked us up following recent publicity from BBC London who caught us at the Cinema and Garden Museums and also in ‘Time Out’. Rachael Sigee had alerted the College of Surgeons Press Officer who kindly gave us a Museum Guide which should ensure a better level of accuracy. Last week my excuse for ignorance of history was one thing – ‘Not my period’ – but today I can say even more categorically I never had a single Biology lesson in my life though I have somehow blagged my way working in a hospital setting (not medically, I hasten to add).
Why Hunterian? Because John Hunter, a keen surgeon teacher and anatomist, collected specimens of both healthy and unhealthy body parts. Hunter was a Scot – there is a pattern emerging here with Alexander Fleming also from north of the border and Astley Cooper of the eponymous Old Operating Theatre - a pupil of Hunter’s. Hunter bought /rented two houses close to each other. The posh bit fronting Leicester Square was where his wife Anne did the entertaining (the museum has a similar lute to the one they would have heard playing). However, he also had a house in round-the-corner Castle Street where the students lived and dissected bodies, and between the two he built a ‘museum annex’ (think Russian oligarchs adding pools to the Kensington mansions) where his collection was displayed – and used as teaching aids.
My previous experience of body parts in alcohol or formaldehyde had been rather brown shriveled things in dirty brown soup and dusty jars... Think again! The Hunterian has a stunning display and all the items have been re-bottled in clear crystal, in matching though appropriately sized jars and displayed on clear glass shelves – the visual effect is truly beautiful. Even if small animal bodies or human body parts are not your thing (and if you look too long or too closely the experience can indeed get slightly squeamish) the overall effect is a real testament to a man who not only practised surgery (he served with the military) but collected and collated specimens, taught dissection and was interested in researching all aspects of anatomy and physiology. His pupils not only included Copper but also Jenner, the pioneer of vaccination – a science we continue to struggle with today.
While the central atrium of this two-storey museum displays the artefacts in jars the cabinets round the wall are located to match the diseases catalogued and shows the progress of various branches of medicine and surgery. This is what the Museum calls ‘Surgery Transformed’ and ‘Modern Surgery’. The array of implements is impressive – from the barber surgeon’s sword through clunky cutters and braces up to the more recent micro-surgery where operations appear to be carried out via remote control and a headset, known as Minimal Access Surgery (MAS) and now recognised a separate speciality requiring dedicated training . Without proper control of sepsis (infection, thank you Joseph Lister , not a Scot but trained there) no progress would have been made and the advance of surgery goes hand in hand with advances in infection control, and anaesthesia of course. (There is rather less about pain control but perhaps we bleeped over this bit)
As the early pioneers honed their craft in warfare the two major conflicts of the 20th century were also to see advances in plastic surgery particularly. There are excellent displays of the pioneering work of Harold Gillies, who set up a specialist plastic surgery unit to repair facial injuries at Queen Mary’s Hospital Sidcup (very familiar to Jo and myself as several key bus routes terminate there). Following his lead came Archibald McIndoe who worked similar skills on facial burn victims from World War II. You might be forgiven for thinking these two were Scots but they turn out to be New Zealanders (but doubtless with some Celtic genes)
There are more intimate spaces (or smaller galleries) off the main atrium. On the upper floor we found ourselves in the special exhibition space devoted to showing the sketches of Henry Tonks. I recommend Pat Barker’s Life Class for a fictional account of this artist, who interestingly started his working life as a surgeon (steady hand/precision/ accuracy/flair perhaps are transferable skills, though I would not like to see Jackson Pollock as a surgeon...) and then became a teacher at the Slade where he taught just about every First World war artist you have heard of. The Qvist Gallery features his before-and-after sketches of Gillies patients set beside more recent drawings by Julia Midgley of soldiers in rehabilitation at Headley Court.
The Hunterian, like all museums nowadays, has a ‘hands-on’ section where some exhibits can be looked at more closely and also where links are made between animal anatomy/skeletons and human ones. A compact gallery shows some of the artwork collected by Hunter who was fascinated by some of the newer species that explorers brought from overseas. There are two beautiful drawings by George Stubbs; the one of a horse skeleton, the next of a well-proportioned horse exemplifying that to draw from nature you need to observe the underlying structures of creatures. . Moreover it is said he kept a giraffe at his ‘country house’ in Earls Court. This is not to minimise the importance to the development of all branches of medicine of studying the whole animal kingdom.
If there is one gap it is looking at the emotional impact of surgery which is after all the most invasive branch of medicine – ‘the surgeon is like an armed savage who attempts to get by force that which any civilised man would get by stratagem’ is what Hunter told his pupils.
The collection is even greater than what you can see – there are written archives and a huge collection of both animal and human bones and teeth. It is well presented and if you start on the ground floor (which we failed to do because of finding somewhere quiet to sit) you will also get a historical perspective on what preceded Hunter and his inimitable collection housed in the very grand (Charles Barry post Bank of England) College of Surgeons. Entrance is free and the facilities are in keeping with the overall ambience.