London: Gordon Museum of Pathology

Part of me feels like even posting about a museum that isn’t open to the public, and moreover, doesn’t allow photographs, so I can’t even show you what it was like, is just a cruel, cruel tease.  But a larger part of me thinks that the Gordon Museum was so amazing that I should blog about it on the off-chance that someone else who has the opportunity to visit knows to take full advantage.  So here we go.

The Gordon Museum has indeed been something of an unattainable dream for me.  I first discovered it shortly after starting my Master’s degree at King’s College London when searching for medical museums, as it is the largest medical museum in the UK, and part of King’s.  However, as access is only given to medical students, and other members of the “medical public,” I had somewhat resigned myself to the idea that I was never going to get to see it.  I even debated writing my dissertation on some really bizarre medical condition at one point, so I’d have an excuse to gain admittance, but as I ended up writing about cultural constructions of eighteenth century dwarfism, I didn’t really have a valid reason to examine old bones.  But let’s fast forward four years, to a few months ago, when I received an invitation to an alumni weekend.  Normally, I just delete those emails unread, but something made me actually look at this one.  Lo and behold, one of the events was a free tour of the Gordon Museum, open to all alumni!  Signing up for a university-related activity went against every one of my natural anti-social impulses, but I couldn’t resist the allure of stuff in jars.

So last Friday, I lined up in the foyer of the Hodgkin building on Guy’s Campus to await the arrival of the museum curator with my fellow alums. As I had suspected, given that the tour was in the middle of the day, the vast majority of them were quite elderly (I’m sure I spotted some of the class of ’49).  Which theoretically is fine, since I typically prefer old people to young ones, but these were some nosy-ass old people. I had to field questions about why I wasn’t at work, to which I responded that my fine King’s education hadn’t been of much use in finding employment.  Fortunately, the curator soon turned up and led us through his office (I’m rather disappointed there was no line on the floor to follow around his desk), and into the museum.  I wanted to immediately rush off in search of Tuten-Alan (the subject of a Channel 4 documentary a few years back, who is now housed at the museum), but I had to stay with the group.  The curator gave a brief talk about the purpose of the museum, and told us that they were acquiring new specimens all the time, before leading us downstairs to begin the tour in earnest.

The Gordon Museum is laid out over three floors, accessed via spiral staircase, and each floor is divided into four sections.  We began with a lecture theatre, which had excellent paintings of Chinese people suffering from various unsightly tumours on the walls.  They were once used to advertise the services of British surgeons in China, and as only one of the patients died, which is a pretty good success rate pre-anaesthesia and antiseptics, they must have been fairly competent surgeons.  The next room was home to some gorgeous wax models, some of which I’d seen before at an anatomy exhibition at the Wellcome Collection.  I learned that the difference between British and European anatomical models is that the British ones were obviously of dead bodies, whilst European ones were sculpted to appear alive (albeit sleeping or unconscious).  The  next room over was the dermatology section, complete with more wax sculptures taken from living people with various skin conditions.  My favourites were the ones with tertiary syphilis, as having your nose rot off is pretty much as bad as a skin disorder gets (except for leprosy I guess).  I was a bit worried Tuten-Alan would be hidden somewhere, not on display, but he was waiting for us in the final room, just chilling out in the corner.  Tuten-Alan is a man who found out he was dying of cancer and agreed to let his body be mummified after his death, so scientists could try out ancient Egyptian burial techniques.  Alan seemed delightful on the documentary, so I was glad to see him in person (well, his mummy anyway), and happy that he was somewhere where he could educate people, which is what he had requested.  This room was also home to other medical miscellany, including the first stethoscope used in the UK, and Lister’s original carbolic acid spraying device.   Neat.

Progressing up to the first floor, we were given free rein to wander around for a bit to look at whatever we wanted to.  The whole floor was full of jarred specimens, though I don’t remember any of them particularly standing out on this level.  The second floor, on the other hand, was the motherlode of oddities.  I was delighted by the criminology section, which is still being used to solve crimes today (the curator told us about a rapist/murderer in the ’70s who was just convicted from evidence in the museum), which included sections on suicide and infanticide.  I know it may seem macabre and grisly to most, but I thought it was incredible.  They even had some Victorian manacles and a high heeled shoe from a 19th century sadomasochist who accidentally strangled himself.

My absolute favourite thing was the fetus section (which might offend some of you, but it’s true).  They had the full gamut; from cyclopism to anencephaly (being born without a brain), to something that was simply called an “amorphous monster.”  This part took up an entire wall, and was larger than similar sections at Museum Vrolik and the Mutter Museum, so was pretty awesome.  I guess I just find the variations capable of being produced in the human body fascinating.  Our tour was only supposed to last half an hour, but the curator generously extended it to a full hour, as it was clear many of us wanted to continue exploring.  Unfortunately, even an hour wasn’t enough time to spend in this incredible museum, and I’m not sure when (if ever) I’ll have the opportunity to return.

I know I go on about my love for the Hunterian Museum on here quite a lot, but the Gordon Museum absolutely blows it out of the water.  It’s much larger, and doesn’t waste your time with all the preserved animals; rather, it jumps right into human anatomy.  I’m giving it 5/5, the only caveat being that most people aren’t allowed inside (which is why the Mutter Museum still tops it, for me).  I know this is largely because to keep receiving new specimens, they have to assure people that their donations are being treated respectfully and used for education, but it seemed like medical students were allowed to wander in and out whenever they wanted, and eat lunch in there, and frankly, I don’t see how someone eating a bag of crisps next to Tuten-Alan is being any more respectful than someone with a keen interest in medical history who only wants to be given enough time to read all the labels.  I can only hope someday they’ll relax the rules, but in the meantime, if you are ever given a chance to visit the Gordon Museum, take it!  You won’t regret it.

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7 comments

  1. This is a really well written review of the museum! I was lucky enough to visit the museum as part of their medical programme for aspiring medics. The specimens were truly fascinating and it’s a shame that it isn’t open to the public. I myself saw several students sitting there and eating their lunch haha.

    I also did a blog post on my experiences too, I think the article is called healthcare careers day.

    1. Thank you! I do wish it was open to the public, because I’d love to go back there and have a good poke around someday. We were only given a few minutes to look around at the end of the tour to look around, and it wasn’t enough! I’m thinking the UK might have stricter restrictions on human remains than most countries, because Thailand has relatively recently pickled serial killer corpses on display, and even the Netherlands has an excellent jarred fetus collection open to the public, so I don’t get why some Victorian-era specimens are off-limits here!

      1. You’ve seen a lot of medical museums around the world then! I think it might be that the museum is a bit cramped, like in the upper floors there’s limited space to walk around in. If large crowds were to enter there’d be chaos – but I don’t see why they can’t allow a set number of people for each session.

        You have some really interesting articles on your blog, glad I discovered it

      2. Yes, I am something of a medical museum connoisseur. The Mutter Museum is Philly is my favourite, though I still haven’t been to the National Museum of Health and Medicine near Washington.
        Thanks again for all the kind words!

  2. Great blog entry!! I was privileged to experience this museum a number of years ago on a work experience placement from school. I have vivid memories of the wax models, forensics room, an adult skeleton ‘greeting’ you upon entry, and (to my 16 year old self) the shocking site of students eating lunch right in the middle of it all!! The hour we had to see it was certainly not enough, would love to go back someday.

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