Spotlight: Hunterian Museum

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Every so often I’d like to write about a museum that I’ve either been to or really want to visit. Believe me my museum bucket list is long. I love a good museum so why not share this with whoever wants to have a read! This week I am spotlighting the Hunterian Museum in London. In June this year I will be lucky enough to visit and see what lurks within.

Two of the most prolific specimen collectors during the eighteenth century were Scottish brothers, William and John Hunter. Separately, the Hunter brothers acquired anatomical collections never brought together in any age or country. John Hunter’s collection, in particular, contained preserved diseased specimens that allowed the Hunters’ private collections to be the first to have significant scientific value. On their deaths (William, 1783 and John, 1793), the collections were donated to the Royal College of Surgeons in England to be viewed by medical professionals.



The main reason why I’m so excited to visit is that this museum will be at the centre of my conference paper in Sydney for the History of Medicine Conference. Medical museums have always fascinated me. Not just because of whats inside, but because of the countless issues that surround them. Take the Hunterian for example and its “Irish Giant” – a very controversial topic.


Charles Byrne, the “Giant”, wished to be buried at sea. Alas his skeleton stands in the museum for scientific research purposes. The whole issue of what happens to your body after death and how important what happens is can be bought to life through this one skeleton.

Not only this but what exactly do these types of museums mean to me? The 19th century saw a massive conflict between medicine for the public and medicine to be kept private. Public anatomy and pathology museums that were absolute success stories were closed down in favour of the more “elite” museums. Dr Kahn’s Anatomical Museum was one ‘victim’ of the professionalisation of the anatomy and pathology schools.

Instead, museums such as the Hunterian became the dominant and becoming a qualified doctor no longer meant paying 2 pounds to sit in on an autopsy. You had to study. Anyway I am very excited to see this museum in person and check out all the wonderful things on display! I imagine it is going to be a real old school museum – I will be disappointed if it isn’t.

Hunterian Museum 1853

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