A visit to the Hunterian Museum shows how lessons from the past are informing the future of medical researh

Hunterian MuseumTucked away in the gracious surroundings of the Royal College of Surgeons, based in Holborn’s historic Lincoln’s Inn Fields (the area so beloved by Charles Dickens and Samuel Pepys) is one of the quirkiest and informative museums in London that I have visited – the Hunterian Museum. Named after the surgeons, teachers and researchers William and John Hunter, this museum is a fascinating tribute to the work carried out by the brothers during the 18th century.

It contains collections of human and non-human anatomical and pathological specimens, models, instruments, painting and sculptures that demonstrate the art and science of surgery from the 17th century until the present day. And the scope of the Hunterian Collection, as it is known, is immense – I hadn’t expected it to be so wide-ranging and was temporarily lost for words when I encountered its Crystal Gallery, which features human, animal and plant materials – glass jar after glass jar after glass jar of weird and wonderful items. There’s even the skeleton of poor old Jonathan Wild, that notorious receiver of stolen goods (turned informer) who was hanged at Tyburn in May 1725; his body was sold for dissection after the execution.

Although much of the Collection is based around John Hunter’s research, it is thanks to William that this museum exists and that John Hunter had such a long and illustrious career. Born in Glasgow in 1718, William studied medicine at Edinburgh University, moving to London in 1741. Here, he quickly became well-known as a physician, building up a distinguished clientele which included members of the Royal Family. Crucially, William established himself as a teacher of surgery and anatomy and began to assemble a collection of anatomical and pathological specimens which he used to support his teaching work. A man with many & varied interests, he also began collecting art, coins, books, manuscripts and curiosities.

In 1748, William invited his 20-year old brother John to join him in London, where he began work as an assistant in William’s anatomy school. Here, John learned human anatomy, showing great aptitude in the dissection and preparation of specimens. Following stints overseas as an army surgeon, during which started collecting specimens of lizards and other animals, John began to build up his own private practice. In 1783, he moved to a large house in Leicester Square, which enabled him to take resident pupils and to arrange his collection into a teaching museum. As his fame and reputation grew, John cultivated a network of collectors across the world – for example, Sir Joseph Banks brought him back a kangaroo from James Cook’s voyage of 1768-71. Eventually, John’s museum came to include 14,000 preparations of 500 different species of plants and animals and was purchased by the UK government after his death.

The above is no more than a snapshot to the fascinating lives of the Hunter brothers. To properly understand their achievements and their respective families’ impact upon Georgian London (John’s wife, Anne, was renowned for her literary salons and both brothers had close connections to the arts), you need to pay a visit to the Museum which so proudly bears their name. Be quick, though – it is closing from 20 May 2017 for three years, so that the entire RCS building can be renovated.

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