From Dissections to Death Masks: The Anatomical Museum, The University of Edinburgh

Photograph by Hugh Pastoll via www.anatomy.mvm.ed.ac.uk

Photograph by Hugh Pastoll via www.anatomy.mvm.ed.ac.uk


Last weekend I was finally able to satisfy my curiosity of what lay behind the 19
th century doors of The University of Edinburgh’s School of Medicine and Anatomical Museum.

Located on Teviot Place, The Anatomical Museum at the University has not long been open to the public. Now welcoming visitors through its grand gates on the last Saturday of every month, it instantly absorbs you into its stony walls of history and heritage. The museum, which opened as part of the new Medical School in 1884, was founded by the renowned Monro dynasty; 3 generations of Alexander Monro’s whose teaching spanned 126 years occupying the Chair of Anatomy at the University, one after the other through the 18th and 19th century. The grand lobby looms over you with two enormous elephant skeletons from either side. As an eager anatomist, your eyes don’t know where to settle first; the enormous jaw bones of a whale, the huge replica of Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp’ or the many portraits and busts of famous anatomists from days gone by.

Dissection Theatre

Photograph by Hugh Pastoll via www.anatomy.mvm.ed.ac.uk

Photograph by Hugh Pastoll via www.anatomy.mvm.ed.ac.uk

As a former student of anatomy and as somebody who is fascinated by its teaching from days gone by, I was completely awestruck as I entered the dissection theatre which is still in use as a lecture theatre today. The beautiful rounded room is centred by a relatively small space that once was host to the magnificent spectical that medical students would flock to see; a human body. It’s tightly packed rows of seats are incredibly steep providing views of the cadaver to even those less-than-eager students in the back row. Sitting in one of the leather-like fold down chairs three quarters of the way to the back, I looked down upon the anatomical demonstration videos of Acland Anatomy that were projected onto the wall below. It was quite overwhelming to think that I was sitting in the very seats that would have looked upon the teaching of the famous Monro dynasty and the many cadavers that graced their dissection tables.

Death Masks

Photograph by Hugh Pastoll via www.anatomy.mvm.ed.ac.uk

Photograph by Hugh Pastoll via www.anatomy.mvm.ed.ac.uk

The museum has a fascinating collection of 40 life and death masks on display which eerily look out onto the museum and its curious visitors from the far wall that they occupy. Originally belonging to the Edinburgh Phrenological Society, the collection which is now owned by the William Ramsey Henderson Trust shows some well known faces from scientists and politicians to criminals and historical figures. To literally come face to face with pioneering Scottish anatomist and surgeon John Hunter and buyer of Burke and Hare’s bodies Robert Knox alongside notorious figures such as William Shakespeare and Julius Caesar is an experience that can only be personified by the true anatomical cast of the individual’s face.

Burke and Hare

Photograph by Hugh Pastoll via www.anatomy.mvm.ed.ac.uk

Photograph by Hugh Pastoll via www.anatomy.mvm.ed.ac.uk

The notorious Westport Murderers are well known historical characters in Edinburgh. Known across the world as the ruthless bodysnatchers who took the lives of at least 16 Edinburgh residents from 1827 to 1828 to capitalise from the high demand for cadavers in the the dissecting rooms of Edinburgh’s Medical School. Once their crimes were discovered and they were both detained, Hare was offered immunity from prosecution if he would confess and agree to testify against Burke. His testimony set him free and committed Burke to execution by hanging in Edinburgh on January 28, 1829. His body was dissected at The University of Edinburgh and his skeleton preserved, articulated and displayed. Now on view at the museum (minus the two phalanges from the 3rd toe on his right foot…), visitors can come face to face with this shady character from Edinburgh’s past, a vivid reminder of how far anatomy and its teaching have come since those dark days in the early 1800s.

To find out more about the Anatomical Museum, visit their website at www.anatomy.mvm.ed.ac.uk

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Book Review: From Bodysnatchers to Lifesavers: Three Centuries of Medicine in Edinburgh by by Dorothy H. Crawford and Tara Womersley

From Bodysnatchers to Lifesavers: Three Centuries of Medicine in Edinburgh by Dorothy H. Crawford

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t give 5 stars lightly, this book is fantastic! Those of you interested in the history of medicine know that the facts themselves are an interesting read, but the authors of this book wrote it in such a way that you really get to know the key figures from Edinburgh’s medical history and their fascinating careers. Don’t know Edinburgh? Don’t be put off. You will learn the history of some of the world most celebrated discoveries and professionals; from Charles Darwin to Arthur Conan Doyle, from bodysnatchers Burke and Hare to Dolly the Sheep. Reading this gripping book really made me proud, not only to live in a city steeped in such pioneering medical history, but to be working for a Royal College so involved in the advancement of medicine through the centuries to the present day.

View all my reviews

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Tabulae Anatomicae: The Lost Plates of Italy’s Eustachi

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Title plate, Tabulae Anatomicae, Bartolomeo Eustachi.

Considered the most meticulous and thorough anatomist of his time, physician and anatomist Bartolomeo Eustachi (d.1574) not only had a career embellished with anatomical discoveries and pioneering practices, but was author to one of the discipline’s most influential texts; Tabulae Anatomicae.

Thought to have studied medicine in Rome and Padua, Italy, Eustachi served as physician to the Duke of Urbino and Cadinal Giulio Della Rovere in Rome where, as a lecturer in anatomy, he is said to have introduced the practice of hospital post-mortem examinations.  He is credited with many significant findings of the human body including the discovery of the thoracic duct and adrenal glands as well as providing the first accurate descriptions of the uterus, laryngeal muscles and origin of the optic nerve. Perhaps most famously, he is celebrated for the discovery of the passage linking the middle ear to the nasopharynx; the Eustachian tube.

Ear diagramCopyright: Tangient LLC

Eustachi published Opuscula Anatomica in 1564 which featured eight anatomical plates, mainly detailing the kidneys and vascular system. There were an additional thirty eight copperplates that he had prepared with illustrator Pietro Matteo Pini and engraver Giulio de’ Musi which went unused up until Eustachi’s death in 1574. These remaining plates were forgotten until they were discovered in the Vatican Library by the Pope’s physicist Giovanni Maria Lancisi who published the plates in 1714 under the title Tabulae Anatomicae (Anatomical Tables). It illustrated the human body in a way that had rarely been seen before. The use of copper-plates provided greater detail and precision than the wooden-plates of previous works such as Versalius’ De Humunai Corporis Fabrica, 1543 could produce. Omitting the numbered and lettered labelling which were the favoured annotation methods of the time, Eustachi had used an inventive coordinate system created by rulers that bordered his images. He had pioneered an uncluttered and clear representation of the human form which, coupled with immaculate hand colouring, created the most vivid, vibrant and rousing anatomical illustrations up unto their time.

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