London: Royal College of Physicians Museum

cruik time7

George Cruikshank’s “The Gin Shop”

Before I begin, I wanted to announce that this is my 99th post, so the next will obviously be the 100th!  I’m planning a little giveaway of postcards and things (and it really is a very modest giveaway, so don’t be expecting any big exciting prizes, because my budget is VERY limited at the moment!) to mark such a momentous occasion, so please check back on Friday if you’re interested in winning a lovely and eclectic assortment of postcards from my collection.  Now, on with the post!

After my experience at the Dental Museum, I’ve been somewhat reluctant to visit some of the smaller medical museums in London that I’m not already familiar with, for fear they’d be just as lame.  However, I was sufficiently intrigued by the current exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians to take a chance on a trip up to the east side of Regent’s Park.  “This Bewitching Poison,” which promised to “explore 300 years of drinking history through the work of artists, doctors, and satirists,” sounded just dandy, since I love both medical history and satire.  The rather ugly modern architecture of the building wasn’t quite was I was expecting, as I was hoping for something classical and imposing in the vein of the Royal College of Surgeons (teehee, vein), but I nonetheless collected my visitor’s pass from the reception desk, and made my way up to the first floor to the start of the special exhibit (I also missed the chance to walk up the famous “floating” staircase, as it was closed off, and had to settle for the unremarkable lift).


Although there were no signs prohibiting photography, I was the only visitor, and security guards kept walking by, so I felt a little weird whipping out my phone to take pictures (and I’m not an enthusiastic photographer at the best of times, as most of you probably know by now); instead, I’ve chosen to illustrate this post with some of my favourite cartoons in the exhibition, because c’mon, satire!  The layout reminded me of the Warren Museum in Boston, in that there were a few cases in a “U” formation around a stairwell, and all the people who actually worked in the building kept briskly strolling past me, which made me feel slightly awkward, but I quickly turned my attention to the contents of the cases.

There was a short film about alcoholism in one corner playing on a loop; I only watched part of it as I was eager to check out the artefacts, which were in large part cartoons, including many by George Cruikshank, who became a temperance campaigner in his later years; he was influenced by both his father’s death from alcohol poisoning, and his own heavy drinking as a young man.  In addition to these, the RCP had compiled objects from various museums around London, some of which I’d seen before, but there were also some new things to check out.  I’d definitely noticed the Charles II mug at the Museum of London, but seeing the delightful Charles caricature is always a treat.  The most fascinating thing however, at least to me, was a mug made from antimony which doctors used to direct people to fill with wine and herbs and let soak overnight, as the resulting concoction was supposed to serve as a cure for various ailments. In reality, at least three people died after drinking from that particular mug, plus countless others from similar “cures.”

Plate VI from Cruikshank's "The Bottle."  Image from

Plate VI from Cruikshank’s “The Bottle.” Image from

The exhibit continued on the lower ground floor, in the “Treasures” room, which also housed most of the rest of the museum’s collections.  However, I was distracted from the conclusion of the special exhibit by the stunning silver collection which filled the bulk of this room.  Although many of the labels were missing, there was a handy booklet on a side table which provided descriptions of every item in there (honestly, I was probably happier not knowing what some of them did).  The tongue scrapers and tooth extractors were one thing, but the giant female catheter (which for some reason was at least four times the thickness of the male one, even though I really don’t think our urethras are any wider…what gives?!) made me cringe, as did some of the other gynaecological devices of yore.  It certainly wasn’t quite on the level of goriness as the Hunterian, as the only real “specimen” was a caul in a silver case, but many of the medical instruments were grim enough, especially as they allowed you to appreciate what having those procedures performed on you might have been like in a pre-anaesthetics world.

Outside the “Treasures” room, an impressive collection of apothecary jars lined the hallway. I keep saying that I want to start collecting these (but no one’s taken the hint and bought one for me yet, though in fairness, I already have so many knick-knacks that I probably need to move into a bigger flat or house first), so I loved this display!  According to the tourist brochure I was handed, there’s another room on the second floor that houses a collection of anatomy boards with preserved nervous systems and things on them, similar to the ones in the Hunterian, but I was unfortunately in a bit of a rush so I didn’t have a chance to go up and see them.  I bet they’re grand though.  There’s also a medicinal garden on the grounds, but I didn’t check whether it was open in winter or not as it was fairly chilly that day, and again, I was in a hurry after spending longer than I anticipated admiring the displays inside.

Paula Rego's "O Vinho-playtime"  Image from

Paula Rego’s “O Vinho-playtime” Image from

In the end, I was glad I took the chance, as the RCP was quite good.  Though the “Bewitching Poison” exhibit was on the small side, as I was expecting, I think they did a good job of explaining the medical and social uses of alcohol, and I loved all the antiquarian books in their collection which were open to pages featuring old remedies and “cures.”  My only wish is that the exhibit could have been larger, but I think they did a great job curating what they had, and were probably working with limited space.  The alcohol exhibition runs until 27th of June, so get in before then if you want to check it out.  4/5.

All images were taken from Wikimedia Commons, except where otherwise stated.

Boston, MA: Museum of Bad Art and the Warren Anatomical Museum

20131026_155111   20131026_155154

These two museums have virtually nothing in common other than both being located in the Boston area, but I don’t really have enough to say on either museum to fill up a full length post, plus the Warren Museum doesn’t allow photography, so combining them allows me to include some entertaining photographs!  You may be familiar with MOBA (Museum of Bad Art) through their online gallery, which is in fact the only way to view most of their art collection.  However, they also have several “bricks-and-mortar” locations – one is in a movie theatre, so you have to buy a movie ticket to get inside, but the one we visited is in a public access television studio in Brookline, and is free, albeit slightly awkward to visit, as you have to look round the collection whilst people are at their desks working in front of you.

20131026_154921   20131026_154926

The small collection (about 20 pieces) is displayed along two walls of a lobby, with a detailed (often amusing) explanation of exactly what makes each piece “bad art.” As MOBA puts it: “The pieces in the MOBA collection range from the work of talented artists that have gone awry to works of exuberant, although crude, execution by artists barely in control of the brush. What they all have in common is a special quality that sets them apart in one way or another from the merely incompetent.”  So basically, you’re not simply laughing at the work of amateurs, but more often things where the skill is adequate, but something goes seriously wrong with the composition.

20131026_155117   20131026_155016

MOBA was definitely good for a chuckle or two, but if you can’t go to see the actual paintings, I don’t really think you’re missing out.  Their online collections are far more extensive, and easily accessible to all, so I’d really only recommend going to the Brookline collection if you’re already in the area and feeling bored.

20131026_155019   20131026_154934

Now, for the Warren Anatomical Museum.  It’s located inside the Countway Library of Medicine, which is apparently some kind of Harvard/Boston Medical Library alliance.  It’s right by what appears to be the hospital district of Boston, so parking is kind of a bitch unless you use one of the garages.  We had to undergo an interrogation/bag search by the rather unfriendly security guard, and show a photo ID to be allowed access to the library, but the museum is free, and located on the 5th floor.

On their website, they claim that the museum has over 300 cases, and I’m frankly puzzled as to how they came up with that number; as far as I could tell, they had four display cases (even if you broke up the display cases into individual sections, it was maybe 16 at the most).  They may have had 300 artefacts, but even that seems a generous estimate.  What I’m saying is that the museum is small, much smaller than their website would have you believe.  However, I guess I shouldn’t quibble too much over size, as there were some pretty neat things in there.

The main reason I wanted to visit (other than my general love of medical museums) was because they had Phineas Gage‘s skull, and, perhaps even more excitingly, the tamping iron that was jammed through it (woo, inanimate carbon rod!).  I remembered learning about Gage in psychology and linguistics classes, but in case you’re not familiar with him, basically, he was a 19th century construction foreman who had an iron rod rammed through his brain in an accident.  Surprisingly, he survived the incident, and was still a functioning adult, even though his frontal lobe was completely destroyed.  Unfortunately, the accident completely changed his personality, and he went from being reliable and amiable to argumentative and impatient, meaning it was impossible for him to hold down a job, and he exhibited himself in sideshows until his seizure-related death (another side-effect of the accident).  The reason Phineas Gage is so important is because his accident transformed the understanding of the brain, which led to developments in medicine and psychology (and darkly, would later indirectly lead to things like lobotomies, although really, if they had studied the case of Gage at all, they could have figured out destroying chunks of the brain was definitely a bad idea).  So yeah, it was pretty extraordinary to see the artefacts relating to his case.

Boston is also where the first public surgery under anaesthesia was performed, by Doctor John Warren, who is both the founder and namesake of the collection, so there were of course materials relating to that.  There were a few impressive teratological specimens, and the skeleton of a woman whose body had been absolutely destroyed by rickets, in addition to the usual surgical instruments you would expect from a medical museum.  They also had some fascinating accounts from students at the Victorian-era medical school, and the lengths they would go to obtain skeletons to study (something which involved conspiring with the janitor to get their hands on a corpse, which he would then boil down for them).  The walls were lined with portraits of famous 19th century doctors; the portrait of Crawford Long showed him to have the dark hair and long face that would have made him just my type, but a photograph of him taken in later life made me realise he was much less attractive than his portrait led me to believe.

Although it was a bit of a hassle accessing the Warren Museum, and the collection was fairly tiny (at least, the collection on display, I’m told their holdings are far more extensive), it was a rare opportunity to see Phineas Gage’s skull, so I am glad we stopped.  If you’re in Boston and a fan of medical history, then it’s definitely a worthwhile destination, just don’t expect your visit to take much longer than half an hour.

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.