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'Curious anatomys': an extraordinary story of dissection and discovery

Sun 20th May 2012

In the course of its 494 year history, the Royal College of Physicians’ (RCP) has acquired a remarkable collection of medical artefacts and other rare exhibits. The inventory includes six 17th century dissections displayed publically for the first time.

The anatomical displays, the oldest in Europe, are thought to have been brought from Italy in the mid 17th century by Sir John Finch who studied medicine at the University of Padua. It is not known who produced the dissections or how they came into John Finch’s possession. Originally it was believed they had been brought to England by renowned physician William Harvey. However, the discovery of a letter written in 1664 by Edward Brown, a student of anatomy at Padua, records that the dissections belonged to John Finch and comments on their precision as being 'five times more exact than are described by any author.'

The exhibits lay hidden at the Finch family estate at Burley-on-the-Hill, till a descendant, George Finch 7th Earl of Nottingham, donated them to the RCP in 1823.

The six dissections include complete arrangements of the arterial, venous and nervous systems- the brachial plexus, the spinal cord and its minute branches are clearly visible on one dissection. Another shows two placentae, possibly having come from a woman who died in childbirth. The bodies from which the dissections were performed are thought to have come from hanged criminals or deceased hospital patients.

The intricate detail of each piece gives testament to the fact that the process must have required great skill and patience. Sir Richard Thompson, president of the RCP, said:

‘The anatomical tables are six of the RCP’s most fascinating exhibits. The exhibition gives members of the public the opportunity to see these rare wonders up-close’

The experience jogged my memory of medical school when I spent a great deal of time inspecting dissections of bodies donated to medical research. Luckily there were no anatomy related questions to answer this time.

However, one certainly does not have to be doctor, anatomist or have a morbid fascination with death to enjoy the exhibition.

William Schupbach, librarian at the Wellcome Library and expert in 17th century anatomy adds:

‘The extraordinary thing about the tables is that they are the actual veins, arteries and parts of the body. Gunther von Hagens, creator of the Body Worlds exhibitions is well known today, but the RCP’s tables show that somebody had the idea of preserving actual body parts many centuries ago.’

I was shown around the exhibition by deputy curator, Laura Sleath, who explained that it is thought the dissections were preserved by drying out the specimens followed by injecting them with wax. Later dissections were preserved with alcohol and from the 19th century onwards, formaldehyde was used.

The exhibition is held on the first floor gallery of a Grade 1 listed RCP building. The majestic looking interior is itself worth a look and there are plenty of other exhibits to be seen, including old medical paraphernalia and ancient textbooks.

The college library contains a wide collection of rare books, many not related to medicine, such as the Historia de las missiones des Japan (1601). Many books were lost in the great fire of London 1666, whilst others have been donated through the centuries.

Laura explained that, centuries ago, doctors were expected to be well read on a wide variety of subjects. The oral exam that led to admission as a member of the College contained questions on medicine and other subjects. The questions could be asked in English, Latin or Greek and the answer had to be given in the equivalent language. The mere thought makes today’s medical school exams seem straightforward in comparison.

Laura added that during these times, Professors of Anatomy were also Professors of Botany. Botany was practiced in the summer months, and anatomy was left to the wintertime when it would have taken longer for corpses to putrefy.

The exhibition is free and open to the public Monday to Friday 9am-5pm, from 27 April to 26 October

www.rcplondon.ac.uk/museum-and-garden
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