As part of my visit to Barts Pathology Museum, I attended a talk by Professor Will Ayliffe from Gresham College on the history, purpose and present of pathology museums. He explained that the purpose of such museums has changed over time. Initially, resperentations of anatomy used to be common sights, with relics, bones and wax models widely visible in churches and beyond. These days, anatomy is often viewed with suspicion – especially after the Alder Hey scandal of a few years ago. In northern Europe particularly, we don’t habitually see the dead: there is no culture of relics, and no open caskets. Museums like this have been used for comparative anatomy, criminology and phrenology.
Dissection has been viewed with suspicion from classical times right through to medieval times. Galen dissected apes, but human dissection was usually used as a punishment; autopsies were only allowed if foul play was suspected. The papal bull of Pope Sixtus IV of 1482 allowed unclaimed corpses and executed criminals to be dissected. Da Vinci and Vesalius increased knowledge of anatomy, while William Harvey’s work discovered more about the circulation of the blood. One purpose of dissection was to desensitise the doctor, so they could be clinically detached when working on “real” patients.
By the mid-eighteenth century, criminals sentenced to death could also be sentenced to dissection. There was an insufficient supply of bodies – only 8% of those hanged were killed for murder, which meant that they could potentially be dissected – and yet there were more and more medical students who would need them. This was despite the difficult and dangerous nature of the work: Charles Darwin’s nephew died the day after cutting a finger and dissecting a child. The need for bodies led to the growth of the “Resurrection Men”, who dug up bodies from cemeteries and sold them to the surgeons. Dissection was therefore often viewed with suspicion: the dissection at Bart’s of the hanged murderer of the then Prime Minister in 1812 was accompanied by screaming crowds threatening to murder the dissectors. The skull of this man, Bellingham, is still kept in this museum.
Nowadays, the specimens in this museum are fairly old, but we can still learn from them, and the museum is still used by medical students today.