Body Snatchers And Abnormalities In Jars: A History Of Barts Pathology Museum

By Londonist Last edited 26 months ago
Body Snatchers And Abnormalities In Jars: A History Of Barts Pathology Museum

The medical student walks reverently across the parquet floor: hanging gas lamps spill pools of light onto the polished wood, and as his shadow weaves through them he hears the echoes of his footfalls rise purposefully to the glass ceiling. He passes shelf after shelf of potted specimens, golden light bouncing from the curved glass like eyes in the moonlight, until at last he locates the pot he is seeking. Carefully he picks it up and examines the delicate minutiae of the specimen, recording each detail deftly with his pencil, softly scratching the paper with the lead, the quick strokes the only sound in this silent, cavernous museum…

Images courtesy of The Royal London Hospital Archives

The way medical students are taught may have changed since the heyday of Barts Pathology Museum in the 1920s and 30s, yet the building itself has lost none of the drama. But what were medical museums like this for and how did they originate?

Most people, particularly Londoners, are familiar with the body snatchers or resurrection men who were active mainly in the early 1800s. They were paid men who worked in gangs in the dead of night, exhuming or ‘resurrecting’ freshly interred corpses from graveyards. As sinister as it sounds, for these men it was merely a business: eminent and upstanding surgeons and doctors paid them for their efforts and their ‘products’. This is because the flourishing medical schools in London and beyond did not have the resources, i.e. the cadavers, they needed to teach their students the necessary anatomy and surgical skills. (And as Sir Astley Cooper, renowned and eccentric London surgeon once said, “He must mangle the living if he has not operated on the dead”.) The only legal source of cadavers for these schools, thanks to The Murder Act of 1752, was executed criminals — around 10 a year and not nearly enough for the medical hopefuls. Thus the trade in body snatching was born.

Bodysnatchers at Work, courtesy of Kim Traynor at Wikicommons

Even the Medical School at St Bartholomew's Hospital, after being founded by John Abernethy in 1790, was forced to purchase the spoils of the resurrection men. The Fortune of War pub, which used to be opposite the hospital and pathology museum (on Giltspur Street), was famous for its room in which the freshly disinterred deceased were displayed on benches for the surgeons to peruse and buy, while the tired body snatchers revived themselves with a drink. It’s marked by a monument (The Golden Boy of Pye Corner) and an inscription which reads:

The chief house of call
North of the River for
Resurrectionists in body
snatching days years ago
The landlord used to show
The room where on benches
Round the walls the bodies
Were placed labelled
With the snatchers'
names waiting till the
Surgeons at Saint
Bartholomew's could run
Round and appraise them

The Golden Boy of Pye Corner, courtesy of Wikicommons

Each cadaver was therefore a highly valued treasure, and this still remained the case after the Anatomy Act of 1832 made the corpses of the unclaimed dead from workhouses available to medical schools as well. All parts of the deceased were dissected and used reverently for teaching, and anything unusual — a cancer, a congenital abnormality or a cause of death such as a fish bone lodged in an oesophagus — was preserved in alcohol in a glass jar. Some were actually taken with consent from the living too; amputated extremities and growths, for example. These specimens became known informally as ‘pots’. They were necessary to literally ‘preserve’ for posterity anatomy and pathology for future generations of teaching when photography was not an option. Some surgeons had professional specialities and would build up collections of pots of a particular pathology related to their work. At Barts Sir James Paget — one of the founders of scientific medical pathology — lends his name to Paget’s Disease, of which there are many early examples here.

Other doctors from around the country then began to donate their own specimens to whom they may have considered more eminent surgeons than themselves. Eventually, these growing collections needed to be housed, and museums like the one at Barts were built.

The architect Edward I’Anson oversaw the completion of Barts Pathology Museum in 1878 (although the oldest specimen housed within is from 1750) and it was opened in 1879 by the Prince of Wales who later became Edward VII. Built in a similar style to many other medical museums of the era, such as London’s Hunterian Museum, it is an open plan space of approximately 28 by 11 metres square. It is made up of three mezzanine levels each around eight metres high, all linked by a beautiful spiral staircase (added around 1910).

After an illustrious history of alumni, like James Paget, Percival Pott and his student John Hunter among others, the museum was awarded Grade II Listed status in 1972. However, after the opening of a new Pathology department in 1909 and the creation of an extension for Clinical Skills teaching in the 1970s, the Pathology Museum gradually fell into disrepair.

The neglect seems absolutely criminal when considering some of the incredible and unique specimens housed here: examples include scrotal cancer of chimney sweeps, frontal lobotomies, leprosy and the first ever ovarian cyst removed without resulting in the death of the patient. The infrastructure of the museum began to suffer, as did the collection itself.

Image courtesy of Scott Grummett

Luckily grant funding was provided by The Medical College of Saint Bartholomew's Hospital Trust, a registered charity that promotes and advances medical and dental education and research at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry. Repairs to the infrastructure and the specimens began, and still continue day to day. However, the museum is now able to open to the public for special events out of hours only, as it is in use by medical students and hospital staff the rest of the time.

Image by Carla Valentine

Various events include one in which you can actually preserve or ‘pot’ an organ — an ethically sourced animal heart — yourself. At the same time you can learn more about the history of preservation of anatomical specimens, the uses of human remains through the years and discuss the ethical considerations of display of human remains. Right now you can book onto the upcoming Hearts at Barts class.

By Carla Valentine, curator at Barts Pathology Museum

Last Updated 14 December 2020