Glasgow: “William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum” @ Hunterian Art Gallery

In honour of our 10th anniversary, which was in late November, and in keeping with our tradition with heading up north for anniversaries (mainly because I’m not keen on staying in the countryside (too much walking!) and there isn’t much else south of London besides the coast, which is definitely not a good idea in the winter), Marcus and I decided to spend a long weekend in Glasgow, as neither of us had ever been. This not only gave me an opportunity to meet Anabel from the Glasgow Gallivanter in person (photos in a future post) and eat deep fried Mars bars and a stupid amount of Tunnock’s Caramel Logs, it also finally allowed me to visit the Glasgow Hunterian, something I’ve been wanting to do for years.


The London Hunterian, named after John Hunter, is one of my favourite museums, so I had high hopes for the Glasgow Hunterian, which was founded by John’s brother, William. Both brothers were in the medical field (John was a surgeon, William was a physician and obstetrician), both were raised and trained in Scotland, and both had anatomy schools in London. And of course, they both founded museums, though I have to say that William’s was far more ambitious in scope than John’s. Whereas John’s museum was primarily a receptacle for his collection of anatomical specimens, human and zoological (not that there’s anything wrong with that), William’s museum had a little bit of everything, more in the vein of the Ashmolean or the Smithsonian. Originally housed on Great Windmill Street in London, after his death the collection was moved to Glasgow, and is the oldest museum in Scotland.
Today, the Glasgow Hunterian is a collection of four separate museums, all located around the campus of the University of Glasgow: an Art Gallery, Anatomical Museum, Zoological Museum, and the general Hunterian, which is probably the closest in terms of the scope of its collections to the original museum. The Anatomical Museum is open by appointment only, and the Zoological Museum isn’t open on weekends, so we were only able to see the Art Gallery and Hunterian. Because there’s quite a lot to say about each, this post will focus exclusively on the Art Gallery, which is free to visit, even the special exhibition!
Given its name, it’s a safe bet that the Art Gallery normally houses art, but at the time of my visit, it was what would have been William Hunter’s 300th birthday, so the museum was featuring a special exhibition called “William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum,” (which runs until 6 January 2019) about Hunter’s life and work, with an accompanying exhibit called “Strange Foreign Bodies” upstairs. The very nice woman at the front desk actually almost apologised to us that there wasn’t art in the main gallery, and I wanted to say, “but you don’t understand, I like medical history SOOOOO much better than art,” but I didn’t want to scare her off, so I left it.
But yeah, this was probably the ideal time for me to visit, as this exhibition was the best possible thing I could imagine being here. It was broken up into ten rooms roughly chronologically tracing Hunter’s life, not counting the introductory gallery, which provided a timeline of personal and historical events during Hunter’s lifespan (1718-1783).
The exhibition still got off to a fairly arty start with paintings of some of Hunter’s friends and contemporaries, along with some of his correspondence and book collection. Hunter attended the University of Glasgow and befriended a number of prominent Scots, including David Hume and William Cullen. In 1740, Hunter moved to London and studied obstetrics with the hilariously named William Smellie (despite his name, or perhaps because of it, he is pretty famous though. I remember hearing about him when I was doing my Master’s). The room on this portion of Hunter’s life contained a number of medical textbooks, including Smellie’s, and some great anatomical drawings, including one by my personal favourite anatomist Frederik Ruysch. But obviously the best thing here was the wax model of the flayed man shown at the start of the post, made by Hunter and based off of the body of an executed criminal. So amazing!
Since Hunter was into both anatomy and obstetrics, it was only natural that he would want to make some anatomical models of pregnant women, and fortunately for him (not so much for the women), 13 of the women under his care died in various stages of pregnancy (not all at once, since that presumably wouldn’t really be something he would want to commemorate and brag about, though I have read an article that did some statistics on maternal death rates and determined that it would have been unlikely he could have gotten so many perfect specimens of each stage of pregnancy, so there might have been some shady stuff going on. I’m not sure if I agree with that, since he did his studies over a twenty year period and maternal death rates weren’t exactly low back then, but he was undoubtedly involved with grave robbers in some capacity, as pretty much all anatomists back then had to be), allowing him to make gorgeous wax models of their wombs. As you have probably noticed, this was the rare medical exhibition that allowed photography, so I can show you all of these wonderful things (albeit with not so wonderful lighting).
He also loved making wet preparations, a technique only pioneered the century before by the previously mentioned Frederik Ruysch (there’s a reason he’s my favourite), so there were plenty of those in here too, and some of them were downright beautiful, especially the inflated portions of intestine that had been injected with wax to show off the veins. Actually, due to his brother John’s prowess in making anatomical specimens, this was one of the few projects they collaborated on, before opening separate (and competing) medical schools. I do wish there had been a bit more in here on William’s relationship with John, but if they didn’t work that much together, I guess there was only a limited amount they could say.
Hunter was also close with George Stubbs, famous for painting a kangaroo based on the skins and descriptions given to him by dishy Joseph Banks after Cook’s first voyage (all of the artists on the expedition having died en route, though Sydney Parkinson did produce a sketch of a kangaroo before he died), and they worked together to produce Stubbs’s Anatomy of a Horse, amongst other anatomical paintings.
On the subject of Cook, there were a number of objects here from Cook’s voyages that were given to Hunter’s museum, as well as a whole room full of gross insects (I didn’t spend a lot of time in there). The last few galleries covered the establishment of the museum in London, which, William Hunter having never married nor produced heirs, he wished to leave to the University of Glasgow after he died (he didn’t come up to Scotland much after moving to London, but apparently he retained some emotional ties, even if he didn’t actually want to live there. Kind of like me and Cleveland). The last couple of rooms were mostly art, but there were a few neat things, including the certificate given to those who had completed a course of training at Hunter’s medical school (god, I would love one of those certificates), Hunter’s death mask, and a pretty cool chart showing all the branches of “science” by 18th century standards (apparently you can be a scientist of black magic. I guess I’m a scientist then? (Just kidding, sort of)).
Having finished with this rather fabulous exhibition, we headed upstairs to see “Strange Foreign Bodies.”  I was immediately weirded out upon opening the exhibition guide and seeing a number of quotes from my MA dissertation advisor on one of the artworks (she scared me, and I haven’t really thought of her in years, so wasn’t expecting it), but was also weirded out by the art, which mostly seemed only vaguely connected to medicine and also not necessarily connected to the descriptions of it in the guide. I did however like the collection of painted skulls entitled “Family Conversation Piece,” and there was a video of a breathing robot one of the artists had created of herself, which was cool, but pretty creepy (below right).
“William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum” had a great punny title, a fantastic collection of specimens in jars and anatomical models, a very detailed exhibition guide, and enough other stuff to appeal to those who aren’t huge fans of medical bits like I am. I definitely recommend seeing this if you can, and I’m pretty sure I enjoyed this about 1000x more than I would have the art normally here (not knocking art, but I obviously really prefer medical history). 4.5/5.
“Strange Foreign Bodes” was OK, but it wasn’t very big, and it’s definitely not a must see like the main exhibition. 1.5/5.

This cartoon made me laugh for about ten minutes. I have a weird sense of humour (which is not news to anyone who makes it through one of my posts).


  1. Glad you enjoyed the Hunterian and your trip to our fine city. The Hunterian is a fine place and I’ll have to get to the new William Hunter exhibition. I’ve never tried a deep fried Mars bar, which probably makes me less of a Scot!

  2. Ooh, a good score! I have been very nervous about your Glasgow posts in case we scored badly, but that’s at least one good one in the bag. We hope to get along to this at the weekend as, given Christmas etc, that’s about our last chance before it closes.

  3. Yikes, I’m so late to this one – but it’s actually well-timed for me because I just finished reading The Mesmerist (about the Victorian doctor John Elliotson) which talks a good bit about the University of Glasgow and history of early anatomists. So it was a lot of fun to get to see so many of the Hunter specimens here, which I’m sure Elliotson must’ve studied in his time.
    I have to say I really like William Hunter’s face. And based on that portrait plate, it looks like he aged into kind of a cute old guy too.
    And I really like those Delft blue skulls. But the breathing-boob robot, not so much.

    1. Oh, I’ve read The Mesmerist too! I only gave it two stars on Goodreads, so I obviously didn’t like it for some reason, but I can’t remember exactly why. Just a vague recollection that it was disappointing somehow. Anyway, I like William Hunter’s face too, and was also thinking he was kind of cute! Certainly better than his brother, John, who had those sort-of overgrown Martin Van Buren-esque sideburns (though not quite as bad as Marty’s). I’m not a huge wig fan, but it was the style at the time, and at least William’s looks clean and well-kempt.

      1. Oh good, I’m glad you read it too! I know what you mean – it was a bit disappointing. I felt it got a bit repetitive and she kept changing her opinion of Elliotson’s antics. It was annoying that she’d show how he was spinning out of control, only to have her defend him (and those phoney- Okey girls) in the next breath. But I did enjoy reading about all the nonsense trials he’d conduct (so ridiculous!) and the accounts of surgeries conducted without anaesthesia.

      2. Yeah, the Okeys were super annoying. I understand why they did what they did, but I kind of wanted to smack them, and especially the idiot doctors for going along with it. I just read The Witch of Lime Street, about Houdini and the alleged psychic Mina “Margery” Crandon, and I kind of wanted to smack everyone in that book too, except Houdini.

  4. Thank you for this story. I am a bit late and thus missed the exhibition, but I will write later a story based on the book that was published to go with the exhibition. I will visit the museum in the latter part of April (and yes, I know some of the key items are not on display as they are in the States at the moment, but I will visit there now as I am anyway in the UK and I was thinking I cannot write about the book if I have not visited the museum). It was interesting to read this.

  5. You might be interested to read a paper by D.C Shelton, ‘Man-midwifery History – 1730-1930’ published in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Nov 2012. It contains compelling evidence that William Hunter, John Hunter and William Smellie were up to their necks in murder to order for dissection. Those specimens, engravings and sculpture of pregnant women on display at the Hunterian are beyond a reasonable doubt all murder victims.

    1. I think I did read that paper, or an article on that paper, which I briefly mentioned in the post, though I couldn’t find the exact source when I searched for it, which is why I didn’t include a link. Undoubtedly both brothers were involved with deeply unethical practices by today’s standards, like John’s theft of Charles Byrne’s body against Byrne’s explicit wishes, but the paper I read didn’t offer sufficient definitive proof for me to claim that all the pregnant women were murder victims, though I agree that some of them certainly could have been.

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