London has many museums of health and medicine. Over 20, in fact. None come close in scale, prestige and sheer oddness to the Hunterian Museum, housed in the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln's Inn Fields.
The museum contains a collection of anatomical specimens assembled by 18th Century surgeon John Hunter (his brother, William, has his own anatomical museum up in Glasgow). Largely self-taught, Hunter was at the forefront of a systematic and scientific approach to anatomy. His evidence-based medicine was at odds with the establishment, who still clung to the ineffective treatments of Galen, Hippocrates and other ancient practitioners.
The fruits of his labours are on show at the Hunterian. Here you'll find pickled embryos, diseased organs in jars, and the skeleton of the 7' 7'' giant Charles Byrne. While it's tempting to idly wander round, being alternately repulsed and intrigued by the contents of the display cabinets, this museum really rewards a more careful inspection. Many of the specimens have unusual tales to tell - either about the history of medicine in London, or about John Hunter himself. We'd advise timing your visit to coincide with one of the frequent tours by a retired surgeon.
It's amazing how few people have been to, or even heard of, the Hunterian. It could be something to do with the lure of the Sir John Soane's Museum on the other side of the square - every guide book's example of a 'hidden gem', 'off the beaten trail'. When the Hunterian does get a mention, it's usually as an afterthought to Soane's great collection of oddities. But herein lies a macabre collection every bit as fascinating, and ultimately more rewarding, than the more famous jumble of bric-a-brac in Soane's house.
We'll be sharing a curator's pick of unusual items from the Hunterian Collection throughout September. And watch out for the Sci-fi Surgery exhibition and events later in the month. All images courtesy of the Hunterian Museum.