The Hunterian Museum

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35-43 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, United Kingdom
The Hunterian Museum - Museum entrance
The Hunterian Museum - Royal College of Surgeons
The Hunterian Museum - John Hunter - In College Foyer
The Hunterian Museum - Hunterian Museum - Royal College of Surgeons
The Hunterian Museum - The Irish Giant - George Byrne
The Hunterian Museum - Jonathan Wild
The Hunterian Museum - Wild - Ticket to his Execution

The Hunterian Museum London Reviews

wabat wabat
160 reviews
The Irish Giant at the Hunterian Museum Feb 10, 2017
Freak shows of any variety were a mainstay in the entertainment of London society in Georgian times (1700s), the odder and more extreme the better.

In 1781 George Byrne left his home in Northern Ireland to join ‘the circus’.

Byrne – or as he is better known, The Irish Giant, claimed to be somewhere between 8ft 2inches and 8ft 4inches (2.48-2.54m ) though skeletal evidence suggests he was around 7ft 7inches (2.31 metres). Interestingly, legend tells us, his parents, of more modest stature, made love high up in a haystack and it was thus George’s lofty conception that caused him to be so tall.

On arrival in London, intent on making a fortune, he joined Cox’s Museum. James Cox, in addition to being a jeweler and goldsmith, ran a small museum of curiosities which in addition to Byrne included Oliver Cromwell's head.

The Irish Giant was an instant success, even with the king and queen. As 1782 newspaper reported:

"However striking a curiosity may be, there is generally some difficulty in engaging the attention of the public; but even this was not the case with the modern living Colossus, or wonderful Irish Giant ……….. descriptions must fall infinitely short of giving that satisfaction which may be obtained on a judicious inspection".

Not everyone was as impressed though and Sylas Neville, a prominent physician at the time commented thus:

“Tall men walk considerably beneath his arm, but he stoops, is not well shaped, his flesh is loose, and his appearance far from wholesome. His voice sounds like thunder, and he is an ill-bred beast, though very young – only in his 22nd year.”

Neville and his ilk were in a small minority and success continued for Byrne who commanded a viewing fee of 2/6d per person – an amazing amount for 1782. Unsurprisingly it was not long until Byrne had competition, many from Ireland, including some claiming to be lineal descendants of legendary Irish monarch, Brian Boru.

Unable to handle his success and having been robbed of GBP700 (his total earnings since arriving in London), Byrne took to the drink and died in 1783, aged 22.

Enter John Hunter.

Hunter was an esteemed surgeon and by the time of Byrne's death already surgeon to King George III. In 1790 he was appointed British Surgeon General by the then Prime Minister, William Pitt. More relevant to Byrne’s case was that Hunter was an avid collector of anatomical specimens and not averse to having curiosities (scientific oddities) in his own collection. Hunter resolved to have the Irish Giant in his collection. Whether Hunter’s desire to secure Byrne’s remains was driven purely by his scientific interests or (even in part) a desire to have Byrne merely for his curiosity value will, I imagine, never be known.

It is alleged (there is no first hand evidence) that Byrne’s deathbed wish was that he be buried at sea in a lead coffin, specifically to avoid his body falling into Hunter’s hands.

Certainly, Hunter was not the only surgeon after Bryne’s cadaver. As one newspaper reported:

“The whole tribe of surgeons put in a claim for the poor departed Irish Giant, and surrounded his house just as Greenland harpooners would an enormous whale. One of them has gone so far as to have a niche made for himself in the giant's coffin, in order to his being ready at hand, on the "witching time of night, when church-yards yawn"".

In any event Hunter secured the Irish Giant’s cadaver and quickly boiled it down to produce a skeleton. It is not known for sure how Hunter got the cadaver but it is generally thought that he bribed a member of the funeral party to replace the body with stones and give him the body very shortly after death and certainly before the casket “full of stones” was put on display prior to it being buried at sea.

Hunter did produce a scientific description of the anatomy and skeleton and a significant amount of scientific analysis has been carried out on Bryne’s skeleton since. In 1787 the skeleton was put on display and so it remains, now in the Hunterian Museum, in the Royal College of Surgeons in London where you can see it today.

As I have indicated in my separate review of the Hunterian Museum, Byrne’s skeleton is the most controversial item on display and there are regular calls for it to be buried at sea in accordance with the supposed wishes of Byrne.

It is, certainly today, pretty much universally accepted that museums should not display human remains against the wishes of individuals, their families and, where relevant, local communities.

In accordance with this policy skeletal displays of the 'Hottentot Venus' (Saartjie Baartman) and Truganini, the last Tasmanian Aborigine were accepted by as being inappropriate and taken down in the 1970s by the Muséum d'histoire naturelle d’Angers, France and the Royal Society of Tasmania, Australia respectively. Turganimi’s body was cremated and her ashes scatted in accordance with her wishes in 1976 and Baartman was laid to rest in 2002 in the Gamtoos Valley of South Africa.

In 2002, some of Turganimi’s hair and skin were found in the collection of the Royal College of Surgeons and returned to Tasmania for burial.

The Royal College of Surgeon’s (aka the Hunterian Museum) are not of the view that Byrne’s wishes have been disrespected and as such his skeleton remains on display.

"At the present time, the museum's Trustees consider that the educational and research benefits merit retaining the remains.” – museum director.

I am sure my reader(s) with draw their own conclusion on Byrne and on the return of museum exhibits to their “rightful” owners more generally - a topic which most travellers must ponder on a regular basis.

While there are many pictures of The Irish Giant's skeleton online, I complied with the no photography requirements of the Hunterian Museum and instead offer you a contemporary cartoon of Byrne by Thomas Rowlandson, an artist and caricaturist of the day.

Fuller details on the Hunterian Museum are included in my main and general review on the Museum - The Hunterian Museum. I highly recommend a visit.
The Irish Giant - George Byrne
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wabat wabat
160 reviews
Thief Taker General - Hunterian Museum Feb 10, 2017
As you enter the Hunterian Museum, in a niche just past the reception desk, you will be confronted with the skeleton of Jonathan Wild one of London’s most notorious criminals.

Wild, hailing from Wolverhampton arrived in London in 1708 and soon (1710) landed himself in jail for a debt offence. While in prison Wild really began his short life of crime and befriended both other petty criminals and his warders who (the warders that is!) awarded him with "the liberty of the gate", meaning that he was allowed out at night to aid in the arrest of thieves. Off course this award was of mutual benefit to warders and Wild.

On release in 1712, and using contacts made in prison, Wild became a pimp and a 'collector" of stolen goods – stolen by himself and his accomplices (he ran gangs of thieves) - which he would then return to their owners for a fee or offered rewards. Wild never sold stolen goods as there were high penalties for this. He was very happy with the rewards available for "recovering" stolen goods and returning them to their owners.

He was also not averse to turning in his fellow criminals, especially those who challenged his right to retain the majority of the rewards/fees for the recovery and return of stolen goods to their rightful owners. Turning in criminals was a highly profitable business - he would receive a reward from corrupt City officials he had befriended. Indeed, some of those he turned in, he later bribed other officials to have them released again so they could continue working for him. Presumably the bribe for getting them out was less than the £40 reward for turning them in!

Initially this role of turning in criminals and thieves – as thief-taker – won him much public acclaim in a then crime ridden London with a totally ineffective police force. This public affection helped Wild evade prosecution himself and earned him the dubious honour of being referred to as “Thief Taker General of Britain and Ireland” – though I think that title was self proclaimed. In 1720, Wild's fame was such that the Privy Council consulted with him on methods of controlling crime. Wild’s recommendation was that rewards for evidence against thieves be raised and indeed the £40 reward for capturing a thief was increased to £140!

His good fortune ran out in 1724 when he turned informer on Jack Sheppard and Joseph “Blueskin” Blake, two of the City’s most famous criminals. Both were hanged and Wild became a marked man, for his duplicity, among the criminal fraternity. The following year he was arrested and tried at the Old Bailey for being 'a receiver and a confederate of thieves'; for having ‘form'd a kind of Corporation of Thieves’; and for having ‘often sold human blood, by procuring false Evidence’. He was sentenced to hang at Tyburn prison near the current day Marble Arch.

En route to Tyburn (when the entourage was not stopped in a pub to let Wild have a drink – a common and accepted practice at the time for those en route to the gallows) he was pelted with stones, mud, faeces and decomposing cat and dog corpses by an angry crowd which was only placated when the Sheriff promised that his body would be given to the Surgeons (the Company of Barber Surgeons) for dissection.

Wild's hanging on 24 May 1725 was a festive affair attracting a massive crowd. Tickets were sold in advance for the best vantage points (see my main picture). Interestingly the ticket appeals “To all the thieves, whores, pick-pockets, family fellons &c in Great Britain and Ireland” to attend Wild’s execution – so really an invite to all his friends!

The Sheriff did not keep his word and Wild was buried in St Pancras’ church yard but within days the grave was empty. Newspapers reported that unnamed surgeons had removed his skeleton and discarded the flesh and skin which was later found in the Thames and identified as Wild's by its hairy chest!

Nothing more was heard of Wild’s skeleton until 1797 when it was identified as in the possession of a surgeon called Peter Rambin who later passed it to Frederick Fowler who presented it to the Royal College of Surgeons in 1847 which now has it on display in the Hunterian Museum.

Wild’s fate is typical of hundreds of executed criminals whose bodies were taken from Tyburn to be dissected by the surgeons.

While there are many pictures of Wild's skeleton online, I complied with the no photography requirements of the Hunterian Museum.

Fuller details on the Hunterian Museum are included in my main and general review on the Museum - The Hunterian Museum. I highly recommend a visit.
Wild - Ticket to his Execution
Jonathan Wild
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wabat wabat
160 reviews
The Hunterian Museum Feb 10, 2017
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to this rather unorthodox museum and highly recommend a visit if interested in the subject matter. While it is not without its controversy the museum is not in the slightest macabre, disrespectful, commercialised, freakish, sensationalist or tacky (adjectives often used in referring to it).

The Hunterian Museum is an anatomy and surgery museum so it should come as no surprise that it is full of anatomical exhibits and pathology specimens (human and non-human). So, yes there are human fetuses (multiple and at all stages of development); human genitalia; mutilated, diseased and deformed body parts; medical oddities; skeletons; surgical instruments which today one would imagine to be more at home in a torture chamber; etc. Exhibits are typically in formaldehyde filled glass jars for preservation purposes. This is what you except to see in a museum of this nature and if that is not your thing please do not visit. Contrary to most peoples expectations, the majority of anatomical exhibits in the museum are non-human. Also in the museum you will find an interesting art gallery and Winston Churchill´s false teeth!

The major part of the anatomical collection was collected and put together in the 1700s by eminent surgeon John Hunter (1728-1793) who was, in 1776, appointed as surgeon to King George III and, in March 1790, was made British Surgeon General by the then Prime Minister, William Pitt.

While some of Hunter’s collection techniques have been questioned he was no amateur or freak. Hunter was a dedicated researcher, scientist and anatomist and unquestionably contributed much to the advancement of medicine and medical training.Hunter is, today, remembered as a founder of `scientific surgery'.

Did he acquire specimens in a manner that would not be acceptable to-day? Without doubt he did, but this was the way of the 1700s. People didn't carry organ donation cards. It was common practice that the bodies of executed criminals were handed over for medical purposes and also not uncommon that bodies were purchased from sources unknown which would have included those from grave snatchers or worse, on a no questions asked basis.

The most controversial exhibit in the museum is the skeleton of Irish giant, Charles Byrne. I have prepared a separate review on Byrne, 'The Irish Giant at the Hunterian Museum', and another one based on the skeleton of Jonathan Wild – 'Thief Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland' – also on display in the museum.

In 1799 the government purchased Hunter’s collection and presented it to the Royal College of Surgeons which has added to it and maintained it ever since – though a significant portion of the collection was lost in a WWII bombing. The display is professionally and clinically organised in a matter of fact manner with no attempt whatsoever to sensationalise, shock or titillate the visitor – they leave that to the London Dungeon and the like!

While the museum does, undoubtedly, attract a certain clientele seeking some form of titillation this type of person will quickly become bored with the sobriety and matter of factness of the museum. That said, the exhibits are well explained and context is provided. While the museum is free to visit I do thoroughly recommend you pick-up an audio guide from the reception – well worth the small cost. There is a free curator led, guided tour every Wednesday at 1pm and outside this, private tours can be arranged but they are rather expensive.

Presumably in the interests of not sensationalising the museum, it enforces a strict no photography policy. Sketches are permitted.

Opening Hours

Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm.

Closed Good Friday, Easter Saturday and from Christmas Eve to New Years Day inclusive, reopening on the first working day.

Admission

Free - though I do recommend the optional audio guide for a small cost.
Hunterian Museum - Royal College o…
John Hunter - In College Foyer
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wabat says:
:-)
Posted on: Feb 11, 2017
german_eagle says:
LOL
Posted on: Feb 11, 2017
joseph98 joseph98
129 reviews
Excellent anatomical exhibit, except for the squeamish! May 13, 2015
It may be in the Royal College of Surgeons, but you certainly don’t need to have a working knowledge of human and animal biology to find this exhibit – which originally dates from the 18th century – of interest. Undoubtedly, it’s a great way to get a slightly chilling, free-of-charge cultural fix in the otherwise unremarkable central London area of Holborn.

The gruesome collection within once belonged to John Hunter, an 18th century surgeon who specialised in dissections of the dead, be they humans, animals or plants. An eminent practitioner in a profession which, in his day, was often viewed as the preserve of charlatans and butchers, the museum does a great job of outlining how Hunter played an important, transformative role in the development of medical surgery, enabling it to become what it is today.

All well and good, but what we all really come to see is the rows and rows of various body parts and, indeed, bodies themselves preserved in glass jars for our morbid curiosity. Usually diseased or injured in some way – they are dissected for medical reasons after all – these range from bones and organs, to animals whose bodies have been spliced open to reveal the innards within, through to (and this may be too much for some people) human foetuses at various stages of development. So absolutely not for the squeamish then, but an endlessly fascinating anatomical study for the rest of us.

These jars are the centrepiece and aptly housed within long glass cabinets in the centre of the museum, giving things something of a mad scientist air. But there are other things worthy of attention too, such as the 7ft 7ins skeleton of Charles O’Brien, the ‘Irish Giant’, and the corner upstairs that explains surgical procedure today. Throw in some interesting titbits on the life of Hunter himself, plus the story of the museum after his death (it was bombed during World War II, thus almost becoming lost forever), and you have a thoroughly absorbing and informative museum in which to spend an hour or two.

N.B. – Photography is prohibited within the museum, hence the absence of photos of the exhibits themselves in this review.
Museum entrance
Royal College of Surgeons
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joseph98 says:
No just up close and personal views of various horrible body parts instead :D
Posted on: May 14, 2015
spocklogic says:
That's ok, in this case, photos are not allowed inside of, well, the insides!
Posted on: May 13, 2015
vances says:
"Morbid curiosity," indeed!
Posted on: May 13, 2015
Ph1sh Ph1sh
2 reviews
The Weird & Wonderful Hunterian museum Jun 04, 2011
The Hunterian Museum is based on the life's work of John Hunter.

His work involved collecting medical specimens. There are 3500 Specimens that remain of his collection on display at the museum which include everything from Bumble Bee's to Crocodiles and even Some Human Subjects.

Many of the exhibits are very old and some were collected by Joseph Banks during Captain Cook's voyage to Australia.

Mostly the specimens are preserved in glass jars, and in the main part, are in extremely good condition.

There are some very Weird and wonderful things on display here and some might not be for the more squeamish.

For example if you feel that you have the stomach for it there are many samples from people with various injuries or diseases that were collected to help progress/educate the studying surgeons.

upstairs they have a section on modern surgery which Is as fascinating as it is impressive.

I cant say enough good things about this museum. The shear wealth of specimens and information mean that you should really give it at least a whole day!
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RyanCorrea says:
Hey mate, nice one :)
Posted on: Jun 04, 2011

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