OFFERING a unique peek into the science of a bygone time, these anatomical specimens from the Hunterian Museum in London tell a story of medical discovery and curiosity through the ages. Named after the 18th-century surgeon John Hunter, the museum has reopened to the public after being closed for redevelopment for the past five years. The displays reveal Hunter’s flair for anatomy and dissection, and his passion as an exotic animal collector.
Hunter’s surgical skills and knowledge of the human body were gleaned from his extensive studies of cadavers, although he had some murky methods of acquisition. He was known to have partnered with “body snatchers” to acquire corpses freshly dug from graves, and also obtained the body of 2.3-metre “Irish Giant” Charles Byrne after his death, ignoring Byrne’s wishes to be buried at sea. Byrne’s skeleton had long been on display at the museum, but because of the sensitivities involved, it has been removed from the latest display.
Among Hunter’s preparations are a human femur, or thigh bone (main picture), and, below that, a preserved head of a king vulture. The moment a baby crocodile emerged from its egg (pictured above) was also immortalised. These are part of a staggering collection of more than 13,000 specimens of some 500 species accrued by Hunter, around 2000 of which are being exhibited at the museum.
Also shown are microscope slides of a butterfly wing and lizard (both pictured above) prepared by 19th-century histologist and microscopist John Quekett, and the long tongue of a chameleon (pictured below).
New Scientist video
Watch a video about the Hunterian Museum’s anatomical curiosities at youtube.com/newscientist