Almost twenty years ago I lived in Edinburgh and worked as a teacher. Occasionally in the afternoons, when I couldn’t be bothered planning a proper lesson, I’d herd my students along to the medical museum at Surgeon’s Hall on Nicholson Street. I’d get them to look around the place and make notes and then, back at the school, write a review of it for a pretend travel magazine or a comparative essay measuring medical care a couple of centuries ago against medical care now. The students always seemed to enjoy the experience, even though while they looked at the items in the many glass cases and glass jars, they’d grimace and exclaim, “Ick!” or “Yuck!” or “Eeew!”
Then, a few years ago, while I was posting entries on this blog about various museums in Edinburgh, I thought I’d check out Surgeon’s Hall again. But I discovered that it was shut. It’d closed for refurbishment in 2014 and didn’t reopen until a year-and-a-half later.
I was recently back in Edinburgh and took the opportunity to visit the new, improved Surgeon’s Hall. Unfortunately, visitors aren’t allowed to use cameras inside, so the photos accompanying this post are from the street, grounds and stairwell outside.
The museum is bigger, more comprehensive and more attractively laid-out that it was in its old incarnation. It’s actually comprised of three museums – not just the main medical one, but the Wohl Pathology Museum and the Dental Collection.
The first change I noticed, though, was the addition of a £6.50 entrance fee – twenty years ago, you could wander in and explore the place for free. If, like me, you remember how it used to be and this sudden, unexpected expense causes a sinking of the heart, it’s perhaps appropriate that the first room you enter after the desk is one devoted to the heart. Among other things, it houses 27 real human hearts in glass jars and containers, in various conditions of illness and disrepair, often misshapen and leathery and at times so swollen that they resemble giant brown gourds. The most bloated heart there was apparently afflicted by cor bovinum or ‘cow’s heart’, whereby “increased pressure in the heart chambers causes it to slowly get bigger.”
Close by is a pleasantly retro-looking room called the Anatomical Lab, which displays such artefacts as a shark’s jawbone, a six-kilo stone removed from the bladder of an elephant and big, old-fashioned teaching models of the human eye, ear and torso.
The museum’s main chamber has in its centre a mock-up of an anatomical-medicine lecture theatre from about two centuries ago. Banks of wooden seating rise from a dissecting table with a cadaver on it. You receive an anatomical lecture when you sit there, but it’s conducted in a resolutely ungory fashion – a lecturer in period dress talks from a screen and, as various organs and internal body-parts are mentioned, images of these light up on the cadaver (which appears to be a fibreglass dummy).
Meanwhile, a wealth of information and a multitude of objects are displayed on the surrounding walls. For a start, you get an account of the history of surgery in Scotland. Key dates include 1505, when Edinburgh town council granted a seal to the Incorporate of Surgeons and Barbers, and the following year, when things were ratified with a Royal Charter from King James IV. This recognition meant that the guild was entitled to one body (of an executed criminal) every year to be dissected, so that its members could get a proper knowledge of anatomy. By the late 1500s the Surgeon-Barbers had become the most prestigious guild in Edinburgh and by the 17th century they even had the privilege of being allowed to distil ‘whisky or Aqua Vitae’. It wasn’t until 1722 that the guild split and the surgeons and the barbers went their separate ways. The stripy red-and-white pole that still adorns barber’s shops today, representing blood and bandages, is a reminder of how the two professions used to be entwined.
The collection’s oldest artefact is a dissected body of a child presented in 1702 by “Archibald Pitcairne, Doctor of Medicine, Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and one of the Chirurgen Apothecaries of Edinburgh”. Standing in an upright wooden case, the body resembles a grotesque puppet left hanging in its box after a performance. Other items include a baby’s caul (“membranes from the head of a female child born at Colchester, Essex, 10th April, 1888, and much prized by the mother on account of their supposed, supernatural virtues”); a cast of the shoulder of an American soldier blasted by gunshot – the surgeon “cut into the joint and removed the shattered head of the humerus”, leaving the shoulder oddly sunken and deflated; and a bust of the unfortunate Robert Penman before the removal, in 1828, of a huge tumour on his lower jaw – the tumour filled his mouth like a giant, obscene second tongue and is now on display as a weird honeycomb-like structure containing part of Penman’s mandible and a couple of his teeth. (The surgery took place in the days before anaesthetic, but according to the museum’s website Penman “bore it well” and later grew “a large beard to disguise the scarring.”)
Indeed, the museum has countless reminders of why we should feel grateful to live in an age after the development of anaesthetic and after doctors and scientists had learned about the dangers and causes of infection. One information panel shows the ridicule aimed at Joseph Lister and his theories about infection and micro-organisms by a 19th-century medical contemporary: “Where are these little beasts? Show them to us, and we shall believe in them. Has anyone seen them yet?” Nearby hangs a painting called Opisthotonus, done by Charles Bell in about 1805, showing a dying soldier in the final hideous convulsions induced by tetanus.
© Surgeon’s Hall Museums
Upstairs, there’s a dental section with antique toothbrushes, toothpicks, dentures, drills and unappetising-looking forceps for pulling out teeth and ‘elevators’ or ‘punches’ for levering out those tricky little stumps or roots left behind by extracted teeth. It was here that I discovered how the Battle of Waterloo kept Britain supplied with dentures for many years – that’s to say, the market demand for ‘false’ teeth was met with ‘real’ teeth pulled from the mouths of thousands of slain soldiers.
Also on display upstairs are more things relating to surgery. These include an array of ‘foreign objects’ that have been removed from human bodies over the decades, including giant hairballs, lengths of TV cable, hat pins, nails, screws, pieces of a horseshoe and a cherrystone that’d spent 18 years lodged up somebody’s nose.
On the other side of the stairwell is the Wohl Pathology Museum, whose shelves contain examples of every conceivable part of the body, suffering from every conceivable disease, disorder or injury. Hence, you see such things as a skull massively inflated by hydrocephalus, a gangrenous foot, pieces of intestine with Crohn’s disease, a row of five foetal skeletons ascending in age from five-and-a-half months to seven-and-a-half months old, and ten containers – I counted them – housing testes that have been dissected and opened out.
Finally, space is given to the Edinburgh medical world’s two best-known overlaps with popular culture. There’s a portrait of the perceptive and observant Joseph Bell MD, FRCSE, former President of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and one-time teacher to a young medical student called Arthur Conan Doyle. Later, Doyle recalled how, when he was first formulating the character of Sherlock Holmes, he thought of his “old teacher Joe Bell, of his eagle face, of his eerie trick of spotting details. If he were a detective, he would surely reduce this fascinating but inorganised business to an exact science…” On display too is a letter from Doyle to Bell dated 4th May, 1892, in which the author confesses: “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes.”
And inevitably, there’s material about the body-snatchers who 200 years ago kept the medical schools’ dissecting tables supplied with illegally obtained corpses. In Edinburgh, of course, this practice led to the murderous activities of William Burke and William Hare, providers of suspiciously fresh corpses for the formidable and determined anatomist Dr Robert Knox in the late 1820s. Burke and Hare are synonymous with body-snatching but in truth they did no such thing – they didn’t snatch bodies but created bodies, by murdering people, and the cadavers they brought to Knox had never been in the earth of the cemetery. At the museum, this grisly episode is commemorated by the presence of such items as Knox’s violin and Burke’s death-mask and, bizarrely, a little pocketbook that’s said to be bound with a portion of Burke’s skin.
However, the museum doesn’t contain the skeleton of William Burke (who, following his execution, had his body handed over for dissection just as the bodies of his victims were). That’s to be found in the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School.