Finding information about the body nowadays is easy. For our weekly anatomy sessions on Thursdays, one of us picks a topic and researches it on the internet or in books from our library. Within a few hours we can pull together a short presentation based on reliable sources and in non-technical language to share with our fellow students.
But it’s not always been as straightforward as this. I realised that when I visited the Hunterian Museum in central London this week, shortly before it shuts for three years as part of a major redevelopment of its home at the Royal College of Surgeons. The museum houses the collection of anatomist and surgeon John Hunter (1728-1793). It’s a bit like an 18th century Wikipedia for medical students – anything you needed to know about anatomy at that time, including a giraffe, was in his museum or dissecting rooms.
What’s inside the museum
On a midweek afternoon I slipped past the reception desk and headed up the majestic staircase to the museum, looking forward to its ghoulish ambience. The combination of over 3000 glass cases filled with animal and human specimens combined with eerie light levels and free entry make this a surprisingly popular tourist attraction. It’s not often you overhear the words dissection, intestine, crocodile and syphilis while going round a museum. Not for young children, though, or the faint of heart.
Over three decades Hunter collected and analysed animal and human body parts, both healthy and diseased, with his collection eventually reaching up to 14,000 specimens. He used them as research subjects for his own experiments and as teaching aids for medical students. I learned a bit more from the guidebook about John Hunter, and it made him sound not unlike FM Alexander: “as a teacher Hunter encouraged his pupils to think for themselves, to trust what they observed of the human body and always to ask questions rather than accepting established doctrine. Hunter’s own lectures changed from year to year as his research and experiments developed his understanding.”
He suspended the specimens on threads to stop them sinking, and stored them in glass jars full of alcohol, sealed originally with pig’s bladder, tin and lead, then painted over with pitch. In the 20th century during wartime, the size of the museum made it hard to move out of London, and about 10,000 specimens were destroyed in 1941 when the College building was hit by several incendiary bombs.
How we understood the body
Having had my fill of the glass jars, I was drawn to look at the Evelyn tables, dating from before Hunter’s time. These are four large anatomical wooden boards, displayed upright, containing dried human tissue laid down and varnished on to show the nervous system, arteries and veins. They were prepared in 1646 in Padua for John Evelyn, the diarist and traveller, and are thought to be the oldest anatomical preparations in Europe. It is salutary to think that this was the way to understand the inner workings of the human body 370 years ago.
Today we take it for granted that animal and human anatomy are different, and forget that early anatomists assumed anatomy of all mammals was the same. Through imaging, scans and cameras we can see inside the human body to an extent unimaginable to surgeons in Hunter’s time. And through the widespread distribution of the printed word and the searchable ease of the internet we can access anatomical knowledge instantly and feel confident that it accurately represents how our bodies work. So when I do my next anatomy presentation on Thursday, I will remember John Hunter and his contribution to the knowledge I am so easily able to find and to share.