Newest Review: ... the Royal College of Surgeons and entry is free. It is handily located in Lincoln's Inn Fields, close to both Holborn and Chancery Lane u... more
Historic medical museum
Hunterian Museum (London)
Member Name: J_Russell
Hunterian Museum (London)
Advantages: Superbly displayed collection; free admission
Disadvantages: Separate anatomy museum not open to the public; no photography
The Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of England is one of the great but little known museums of London. John Hunter was the archetypal self-taught gentleman-scientist-surgeon of the eighteenth century, whose collection was purchased by the government for the then vast sum of fifteen thousand pounds in 1799.
Hunter, as befitted a gentleman of the enlightenment, collected fine art and antiques and well as medical specimens. Sadly, much was lost when the museum was bombed during the Second World War. What remains has an appropriately scientific emphasis: arguably it was Hunter more than anyone who made surgery into a science and understandable surgeons made much of him. What had started as a trade guild - like the butchers and wax chandlers - evolved into a college of learning built on the scientific foundations that he pioneered.
Hunter famously said "Why think? Try the experiment" and the collection includes some of his most famous experiments, such as chicken bones implanted with lead shot, to show that they grow from the ends rather than the middle, and the epididymis of a boar, injected with mercury and painstakingly unravelled.
Other famous specimens include the Irish Giant, Charles Byrne, who feared dissection and left instructions to be buried at sea, but whose corpse Hunter purchased from the boatmen; Caroline Crachami, the "Sicilian Fairy" sometimes cited as the smallest person in history; and the two-headed boy of Bengal, a rare case of a craniopagus conjoined twin, who was killed by a snake bite.
Recently re-vamped, the modern glass cases make their anatomical contents appear surprisingly beautiful. There are many zoological specimens and examples of morbid anatomy: normal anatomy is displayed in a separate museum for members of the medical profession only.
The Hunterian museum could well be the finest medical museum in England, and is generally uncrowded. The splendid classical premises of the College of Surgeons are close by Lincoln's Inn (an historic Inn of Court) and Sir John Soane's museum, and the area is an excellent alternative to the standard London tourist attractions if planning a day out. As it is situated in an area where lawyers congregate, there are plenty of places to eat and drink nearby.
The museum is only open when the college is open (i.e. not weekends) and it is worth telephoning in advance or checking the website, as even surgeons have holidays. From time to time there are public lectures that are usually well worth attending (book in advance).
Summary: An educational and eye-opening exhibition for the discerning visitor.
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