The afterlives of anatomical bodies: what museum collections can teach us about our past

‘Up the close and doon the stair,/ Ben the hoose wi’ Burke and Hare/ Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,/ Knox the boy who buys the beef.’

This Scottish children’s rhyme has brought over the centuries the memory of the famous William Burke and Edmund Hare duo, and their crimes which shook Edinburgh in 1828: it is estimated that they have killed at least 16 people in order to sell their bodies for dissections. But the fate’s irony is that the killer has suffered the same fate as his victims’, his body was dissected, and alongside a number of body related ‘souvenirs’ it has been kept and passed down until our age.

Burke’s death mask. Source: DailyMail

Among jars with diseased bodies, skulls lined up on shelves or miniature phrenological heads cabinets*, one can find them in the present day Edinburgh’s anatomical museums: a pocket-book made out of Burke’s skin (at Surgeon’s Hall Museum), while his skeleton, and death mask are at the University’s Museum of Anatomy (as an extra, the University has a letter written in his blood by an overzealous student who witnessed his dissection). Thus, his body has been hanged, skinned, impressed with gypsum, probed and mounted to be displayed. However, beyond being a ‘sensational’ keep sake, the fate of this body tells a more important story: it speaks of the early days of medical teaching and dissection, and the establishment of reference anatomical museums, when keeping such bodies was common practice. Hospitals and gallows provided a steady supply of corpses, which moved from anatomical theaters to museum glass cases, where these ‘dried limbs and pickled organs [..] the varnished bones of tropical beasts and the shrivelled bodies of unborn babies’ as author Wendy Moore writes (about the world of famous 18th c. surgeon John Hunter), would have been kept for the advancement of medical education. There was an intense trade in the world of these collectors, selling and acquiring pieces from throughout the world- heads of ‘exotic’ indigenous populations or mummified remains from the colonies, specimens from other collections, or even from dedicated companies such as the renowned 19th century Parisian company Maison Tramond. As bodies were in high demand, until the 1832 Anatomy Act, many of these practitioners would also turn to grave robbers.


The Resurrection or an Internal View of the Museum. (1782). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Legacies of such times, historical anatomical and pathological collections often comprise surprising, wonderful or shocking specimens for the modern eye. Almost forgotten nowadays, such institutions have been popular in the 18th and mostly into the 19th century in Europe and USA – it is estimated that only in England there were around 100 such collections at the time. Similar to the changing views of the body in European history, corpses have a history too, and such museums make it visible. Following on the Renaissance tradition of the Wunderkammeras (wonder rooms) these collections were true cabinets of curiosities, where the normal and the deviant bodies found a place to co-exist.

museum_boerhaave_-_specimen_by_brothers_albinusFor example, in the 17-18th centuries Leiden anatomical collections one could find extraordinary specimens such as those prepared by Frederik Ruysch and Bernard  Siegfried Albinus, specimens in which body parts were adorned with several materials, from lace to plants and twigs, giving birth to real ‘still-life’ compositions; historian Marieke Hendriksen describes one such bizarre display: ‘Two infant hands in jars, lifelike in lace sleeves, hands rising upwards in their phials, one of them holding a flimsy red piece of tissue on a string, the other lifts a vulva tied to a lacy ribbon’. Such specimens brought into view the latest medical knowledge, but with a quest for philosophical beauty and a meditation on death. Many other anatomised bodies are works of art too, from mercury injected bodies which are still bearing today the silvery beads on their dark tanned skin, to impressive wax female ‘Venuses’ that can be admired at La Specola Anatomical Collection in Florence. Other collections, such as the The Gordon Museum of Pathology in London or Museum Vrolik in Amsterdam would show the gruesome effect that disease has on the human body, from cancer to syphilis, from tumours to tetanus- of which the painting of a convulsed soldier’s body from 1809 now at Surgeon’s Hall Museum is a stark reminder.

Wax and mixed media model done by then 18 year old Joseph Towne for which he received the large silver medal of Society of Arts in 1826. The Gordon Museum of Pathology

One can never know what the next glass case will reveal, and it is the juxtapositions which keep you on your toes: one glass case can contain a giant’s skeleton and his life story (as the sad story of 1780s Charles Byrne in the Hunterian Museums in London, who was unsuccessful in his death wish of being buried at sea to avoid ending up dissected), while another case makes one smile when seeing the incredible array of foreign objects swollen by patients (nails, rods, buttons, brushes, you name it); and then, around the corner you are suddenly revealed the roots of your beloved fictional sleuth- such is the display dedicated to the famous doctor Joseph Bell, teacher of Arthur Conan Doyle.

One anecdote narrating the extraordinary insights gained by Joseph Bell into his patients goes like that: ‘You see, gentlemen, when she said good morning to me I noted her Fife accent, and, as you know, the nearest town in Fife is Burntisland. You noticed the red clay on the edges of the soles of her shoes, and the only such clay within 20 miles of Edinburgh is in the Botanic Gardens. Inverleith Row borders the gardens and is her nearest way here from Leith. You observed that the coat she carried over her arm is too big for the child who is with her, and therefore she set out from home with two children. Finally she has a dermatitis on the finger of the right hand which is peculiar to workers in the linoleum factory in Burntisland.’


Ultimately, a visit to such collections provokes the viewer in many ways, raising the question: what are we to do with them now?

Dead people come with a curriculum vitae or resume‘ (K. Verdery)


These are evocative spaces, provoking emotional reactions, but also reflections on one’s body, health and illness. They teach us important lessons of medical discoveries which made our world a safer place, but also of social inequality- caricatures showing teeth transplanted from paupers to fashionable Georgian ladies; we are reminded of times when the bodies of the poor and destitute of the city were sold and bought, but also of patients determination- people who have lived with disabilities, such as the story of Robert Penman (whose photograph and life cast are on display at Surgeon’s Hall Museum), who, after living for years with a ‘swelling’ which occupied most of his mouth and growing outside of it, underwent a successful operation in 1828- in a pre-anaesthesia world. Thus, these are complex and intertwined stories, and it is certain that a visit at such museums will make us wonder.


PS: Some of the most interesting specimens, and one of my favourite discovered in such museums- ‘a human herbarium‘.

Evelyn tables. Probably the oldest anatomical preparation in Europe. Pine planks displaying the configuration of veins/arteries/nerves in the human body, Italy, 1646. Hunterian Museum London. Source:


* The Anatomical Museum of the University of Edinburgh has an interesting collection of casts, from 5 versions of Robert the Bruce skull to a phrenology collection (see the latest project’s website)

Further reading & resources

> M. Sims 2017. Arthur and Sherlock. Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes. Bloomsbury Publishing.

> Joanna Ebenstein 2016. The Anatomical Venus. Distributed Art Publishers.

> Elizabeth Hallam, and Samuel J.M.M. Alberti  2013. Medical Museums: Past, Present, Future. London: Royal College of Surgeons of England.

> Rina Knoeff, and Robert Zwijnenberg 2015. The Fate of Anatomical Collections. Ashgate.

> Human anatomy virtual museum, University of Cambridge

> Surgeons’ Hall @surgeonshall

> AnatomicalMuseum @TeviotPlace

> Hunterian Museum LDN @HunterianLondon



One thought on “The afterlives of anatomical bodies: what museum collections can teach us about our past

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s