A human skull; so swollen by hydrocephalus that the man’s bony face seems tiny on a head the size of a large pumpkin.

A photo of a soldier; his youthful, handsome eyes incongruent above the giant shredded hole left by the shrapnel that blasted his face and mouth to ribbons in 1914.

These challenging exhibits are just two of the thousands of medical marvels in the Hunterian Museum. Tucked quietly inside London’s Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the curiosities on display—an assemblage of human and animal specimens—are best avoided by the squeamish.

Take, for example, the skeleton of Charles Byrne; a man so tall at seven feet seven that he must have aroused fascination and awe everywhere he went. Known as one of the so-called “Irish Giants,” Byrne had a rare form of pituitary gigantism that gave him a dubious celebrity status in the years before his death in 1783. He had paid to be buried at sea, because he was afraid that his remains might end up on display in a surgical museum. Obviously not money well spent.

The eminent surgeon John Hunter, founder of this extraordinary collection, had no qualms about retrieving Byrne’s body. He soon added the enormous skeleton to his hoard of around 15,000 medical specimens, artefacts and oddities. After being dissected, analysed and boiled, Byrne’s remains ended up here on display to the public, much as he had feared.

Hunterian Collection

A bust of John Hunter watches over his collection, including the skeleton of Charles Byrne, centre. (Photo: StoneColdCrazy. CC-BY-3.0)

A history of science

Despite suffering major losses during a bombing raid in 1941, and the recent resurgence of controversy around Byrne’s bones, the museum is justifiably valued today as a uniquely historical and diverse research resource.

This was vividly demonstrated at Being Human/Being Animal, one of the many special events and lectures that the museum holds throughout the year. It featured a series of short talks in the library, led by researchers working in the field of science history. They gave a lively overview of the role that animals have played in the development of medicine, surgery and biological research.

Professor Abigail Woods, Reader in the History of Human and Animal Health at King’s College London, set the scene. She explained that there was little distinction in the 18th century between animal and human medicine. Before professional veterinarians existed, animal keepers relied mainly on surgeons to tend to their beasts. Doctors learned a huge amount about human medicine by treating domestic animals, and in 1791 a group of them established the Veterinary College, London. This institution, which became the Royal Veterinary College in 1875, was the first of its kind in the English-speaking world, and represents the birth of the veterinary profession in the UK.

One animal captured the Victorian imagination above all others—the woolly mammoth. An ancient colossus, known only through enigmatic fossil remains, the mammoth inspired vivid speculation in 19th century society about the dynamics of the interaction between prehistoric people and these giant creatures. Dr. Chris Manias, Lecturer in the History of Science and Technology at King’s, demonstrated how our perceptions of the human-mammoth coexistence, as depicted in painted scenes and romantic illustrations, evolved over time. As prehistorians gradually learned more about ancient people and about mammoths, our imagined scenarios shifted  from early themes of conflict and danger, to artistic assurances of human mastery over nature and “the beast”.

Parasites were next on the menu—and lice in particular. Dr. Rachel Mason Detinger, Research Fellow at King’s, got us all itchy with her account of an important discovery made by the entomologist Henry Ewing in the 1930s. Ewing captured two lice from a monkey at the National Zoo in Washington DC, and let them feed on his own blood to see if they had an appetite for humans. The lice certainly had a decent meal on Ewing’s arm, but within a couple of hours, both were dead. This grisly little experiment gave us the first indication of just how specialised lice actually are. They can’t survive on any animal species other than the one they are adapted to.

Ewing followed this up with the discovery that human pubic lice are closely related to the genital lice of gorillas. More recent DNA research confirmed that the two parasites did indeed share a common ancestor around 3.3 million years ago. It suggests (rather awkwardly) that ancestral humans and gorillas must have spent a lot of time in close physical contact. Make of that what you will.

Continuing with the theme of human-animal relations, Research Fellow Dr. Angela Cassidy explored our highly charged and historically turbulent relationship with badgers. Although they are at the centre of contemporary debates around culling and the risk of bovine TB, badgers have long been the focus of distrust and hostility from coexisting humans.

So why are badgers, and other animals like them, treated as vermin—pests to be exterminated or controlled—while others in the same environment are tolerated, even loved? The answer, Cassidy suggests, lies in competition. Whenever animals compete with humans for food, resources or territory, or interfere with our productivity in some way, they become reconceptualised as enemies. Badgers dig large burrows that our livestock can fall in to, and they have a fondness for some of our most economically important crops. Add the possibility of spreading bovine TB to cattle, and you can see how they’ve been labelled—rightly or wrongly—rural public enemy number one.

An ethical issue?

The lectures left me with a lot to contemplate. I’d encountered some challenging ideas and perceptions from the past, and I had a new appreciation for the continuing symbiotic relationship between science and the humanities.

As I meandered through the galleries at the end of the evening, walking past a collection of foetuses suspended in a jar, their tiny pickled mouths agape, I reflected upon the mixture of intrigue and shock that characterises the Hunterian experience.

Knowing that these body parts once belonged to living people, and being aware of their historical as well as medical significance, I can’t deny an almost hypnotic fascination. To be honest, I’m equally intrigued and horrified. It’s certainly clear from the video above, and from events like tonight’s lectures, that the museum is doing a lot of good work—not least of all in raising public interest in science.

At the same time, I can imagine how Charles Byrne might be turning in his grave (had he been given one) if he could see where his body has ended up. I am grateful for the gift he has given—involuntarily perhaps—to science and medical research, but I do feel we owe Charles and his pickled companions an apology.

In the 21st century, when all of these artefacts can be digitised, 3D printed, and examined virtually, will it become increasingly difficult to justify having these kinds of sensitive and provocative collections on display? How important is it to continue satisfying what probably boils down to a morbid public curiosity? Could it be time to finally lay the human remains to rest? Individual visitors will no doubt come to their own conclusions about this.

But as challenging as the exhibits may be for some, the museum is clearly a valuable resource. And if it all sounds a bit too grisly, you can explore the collection from anywhere in the world via the Royal College of Surgeons’ online catalogue.