Monday 21 July 2008

Friday 18th July 2008 - The Hunterian Museum

The Coat of Arms of The Royal College of Surgeons 1822
(picture courtesy Royal College of Surgeons)

A cloudy damp today for our walk today - something a little different again with a visit to the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln's Inn Fields. (Click HERE for the Museum Website)

We met as usual outside Holborn Tube Station, and our guide Aly led us to Lincoln's Inn Fields and the Royal College of Surgeons. We collected visitor badges at reception and then made our way up the stairs to the entrance to the museum. We were welcomed and given a Museum Guide, and walked into the Crystal Gallery which is just amazing. Originally, we were to have split in two and had a 20 minute guided tour of the Museum, but due to number size instead we were given a wonderful talk by the Director of the Museum, Simon Chaplin who held everyone spellbound with his clear oration and amazing knowledge!

The Crystal Gallery
(photo courtesy Royal College of Surgeons)

So first some background. The Hunterian Museum is named after John Hunter who was a surgeon in the second half of the 18th century. At that time you needed no university education or to study medicine to become a surgeon. You would train under an apprenticeship starting at about 14 years of age and then spend the next seven years learning to be a surgeon. The practical side was good but it was no so good for learning anatomy and of course this was only open to men.

William Hunter
(picture courtesy Royal College of Surgeons)

One of the drawings by William Hunter

John Hunter was born in East Kilbride in Scotland in 1728. In 1748 he came to London to join his elder brother William who ran an anatomy school in Covent Garden. William Hunter (1718-1783) was already an established physician and obstetrician. Under his tutorlege John learnt human anatomy and quickly showed real aptitude in the dissection and preparation of specimens. William also arranged for him to study under two eminent surgeons, William Cheselden (1688-1752) and Percivall Pott (1714-1788).

John Hunter

In 1760 John was commissioned as an army surgeon and spent three years in France and Portugal. During this time he developed new ideas on the treatment of common ailments to be found in the army such as gunshot wounds and venereal disease, but he also spent time collecting specimens of lizards and other animals. Following his return to England in 1763 he became engrossed in scientific research and this came to characterise his approach to surgery.
He began to build up his private practice. In 1767 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society for his scientific work and in 1768 he was elected Surgeon to St. George's Hospital, then in Hyde Park. In the 1770s his home in Jermyn Street had become full of his collection of specimens so in 1783 he moved to a large house at No. 28 Leicester Square, and here, together with his wife the poet Anne Home, he entertained his friends and colleagues and it became a natural meeting place for the many artists, naturalists and philosophers of the time. Behind No.28 was a second house where his school of anatomy was based. This was also where his students lived. On the top floor were the dissecting rooms and one of his students, James Williams wrote to his sister :

"My room has two beds in it and in point of situation is not the most pleasant in the world. The Dissecting Room with half a dozen dead bodies in it is immediately above and that in which Mr. Hunter makes preparations is the next adjoining to it, so that you may conceive it to be a little perfumed. There is a dead carcase just at this moment rumbling up the stairs and the Resurrection Men swearing most terribly. I am informed this will be the case most mornings about four o'clock throughout the winter. There is something horrible in it at first but I am now become reconciled."

(This letter was written in October 1793. The originals of the letters were in a private collection but transcripts are in the library of St. George's Hospital Medical School. Thanks to Simon Chaplin for the quote)

Between these two houses was a third building which housed John Hunter's Museum and contained 13000 specimens, both human and animal. Hunter opened the museum to the public to try and explain his work to them every Saturday in May. Three Saturdays were for gentlemen and one Saturday for ladies. The pub The Moon Under Water in Leicester Square now stands on the site of No.28.

The Moon Under Water pub, Leicester Square

Hunter, who became Surgeon Extraordinary and then Surgeon General, died in 1793 and was regarded as one of the leading medical figures of his generation, and a pioneer of a new style of scientific surgery. An example of his pioneering work, is the story of the Coachmen's Leg. A coachman was treated by Hunter at St. George's Hospital for an aneurism behind his knee. Most surgeons at that time would have amputated the leg, but Hunter wanted to try a different solution. Remember at that time there were no anaesthetics, no antibiotics or antiseptics He used a ligature to tie off the artery high on the coachman's thigh. The man went on to live for another 40 years. When he died, his widow was asked if she would donate her husband's leg. You can now see the limb in the Crystal Room of the museum. This was typical of Hunter's approach to try and find ways of treating patients without operating.

The Museum in 1963
(photo courtesy Royal College of Surgeons)

His Collection was regarded as being of such importance that it was purchased by the government and presented to the Royal College of Surgeons. As well as human specimens there were animal bodies too including two elephants, from Queen Charlotte's Royal Menagerie and dissected by Hunter.

A Charicature of the Battle between the Barbers and the Surgeons
(picture courtesy Royal College of Surgeons)

And now a brief history of the Royal College of Surgeons :-
The College had it's beginnings in the union of the Fellowship of Surgeons and the Company of Barbers by Henry VIII in 1540 to form the Company of Barber Surgeons. They maintained a rather uneasy partnership until the 18th century, when with the number and importance of surgeons increasing through the development of an academic basis for surgical practice, and new anatomy schools such as the one run by William Hunter increasing in popularity, the Surgeons split off to form a separate Company of Surgeons which had it's hall close to the Old Bailey and Newgate Prison. This was of course very convenient for the delivery of fresh bodies for dissection! However, they decided to move to new premises in Lincoln's Inn Fields in the 1790s, but failed to inform their neighbours that there would be bodies delivered for dissection. The judges and lawyers resident in Lincoln's Inn were not happy with the idea of the bodies arriving, and raised a Bill in Parliament to force the College to move away. It was the gift of Hunter's Collection that helped to rescue the situation and a few years later in 1800, The Company of Surgeons were granted a Royal Charter and became the Royal College of Surgeons in London and later of England.

The Whale Skeleton - The Hunterian Gallery before the wars
(photo courtesy Royal College of Surgeons)

A new building was constructed in the 19th century and by the end of that century there was over one hundred thousand specimens in the collection. In 1941 the building suffered severe damage during the bombing of London, and most of the museum was destroyed. The College was rebuilt after the war, with the original inner hall and Library and part of the facade retained.
Although the museum specimens are not used as a practical resource any longer it is still an important place for scientific research today. The College is the leading institute of post graduate training for surgeons today.

The Royal College of Surgeons

I think we were all impressed with Simon Chaplin's talk - he managed to pack in an amazing amount into a relatively short period of time and was happy to answer questions afterwards.

After a brief look around, some of our group met up with Aly outside for a short walk around Lincoln's Inn Fields. Our first stop was in the corner of the fields where we saw a bust of John Hunter.

The Hunter bust in Lincoln's Inn Fields

We then walked out onto the west side of the square to see No.66, now the home of Farrar's Solicitors. The house was built just before 1700 for Lord Powis and was called at that time
Powis House. On 27h July 1694 the Charter of the Bank of England was sealed in this house.

No 66 - Now Newcastle House

In 1705 the house was acquired by the Duke of Newcastle and renamed Newcastle House. Part of the house was remodeled in the 1930s by Sir Edwin Lutyens.

We then looked a No. 3 Lincoln's Inn Fields . This was at one time the home of Ramsey MacDonald, who became the first Labour Prime Minister in 1924 for just a few months, and then again in 1929. He later formed a National Government together with the Conservatives, and was expelled from the Labour Party in 1931. He continued as Prime Minister for another four years until 1935 and died in 1937.

No 3 Lincoln's Inn Fields

We now moved to Whetstone Park which runs along behind the North side of Lincoln's Inn Fields. It was somewhere along here in what was always a rather dubious street, that the poet Milton (1608-1674)lived. At British History Online we find the following: -

Parallel to the northern side of the "Fields," and lying between them and Holborn, is an almost untenanted row of houses or buildings, now chiefly turned into stables, but formerly dignified by the name of "Whetstone Park." Two hundred years ago it was a place of very bad reputation, and was attacked by the London apprentices in 1602. The loose character of Whetstone Park and its inhabitants is a frequent subject of allusion in the plays of Dryden and Shadwell, and occasionally in Butler's "Hudibras" and Ned Ward's London Spy. But Whetstone Park is not without at least one distinguished inmate. At all events we read in Philips's "Life of Milton" that the author of "Paradise Lost" "left his great house in Barbican, and betook himself to a smaller (in Holborn) among them that open backward into Lincoln's Inn Fields. Here he lived a private life, still prosecuting his studies and curious search into knowledge."

Milton was a supported of the Parliamentarians and after the Restoration of Charles II a warrant was issued for his arrest. Even after a general pardon was issued, he was still arrested and had to rely on his influential friends to obtain his release from prison. His most famous work, Paradise Lost, written between 1658 and 1664 is based on that era. He also wrote many other poems including Paradise Regained in 1671.

I hope you enjoyed this walk, and if you get the chance please do visit the Hunterian Mueum - entry is free. Check the website for opening times.


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