Victorian London - Publications - Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, by Andrew Wynter, 1865 - Chapter 11 - The Hunterian Museum at the College of Surgeons

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HOW many among the thousands who have viewed with artistic delight Sharp's engraving of Sir Joshua's picture of John Hunter have ever taken the trouble to inquire further respecting the glories of the great original? Yet Hunter was, without the slightest doubt, one of the most prominent representative men of the last century — a man whose advent the great Bacon must have foreseen, and whose traces will be discernible to physiologists of the latest posterity. A poor lad, without friends — for those valuable ones he had, he unhappily became estranged from — wends his way from an obscure town in the north, sets resolutely to work, and bone by bone, tissue by tissue, specimen by specimen, builds up a history of animated creation from the shapeless zoophite to imperial man himself. Before the time Hunter a few detached groups of facts were all that we possessed of the great chain of terrestrial life. By painful every-day toil, by incessant thought, link by link, he connected these groups together, supplied entire lengths that were deficient, and made manifest the spirit of unity that pervaded the whole. He touched the full diapason of organised life, and left to posterity in his great museum the harmonious song he had elicited from the most hidden recesses of nature. He did all this, and [-107-] like many others in the rub of pure philosophy, he died rich only in the gifts he had confirmed upon mankind. When the exigencies of his widow demanded that his museum should be offered to the Government — which at that time meant William Pitt — the reply of the Minister was, characteristic of the warlike atmosphere in which he lived, "What, give £20,000 for bottles? We want the money to buy gunpowder!" The value of the truths enshrined in those bottles, however, would prevail, and after seven years' clamouring at the doors of Ministers, Science at length got a hearing in the House of Commons, and Parliament agreed to purchase the Hunterian Collection for the sum of £15,000, and it was then transferred to the custody of the Corporation of Surgeons, which became incorporated in the year 1800 as the Royal College of Surgeons. Other grants of money were afterwards made towards the collection by Government, and the college itself has since built the magnificent museum in which is enshrined what may truly be considered the apothesis of Hunter. Year by year this magnificent collection has been added to by purchase, and the additions made by the curator of the college have gone on to such an extent, that the preparations, physiological and pathological, the exclusive work of Hunter, which only numbered at his death 10,536, now reach to upwards of 30,000.
    If the visitor happens to know an M.R.C.S., he readily obtains a passport to its lofty apartments, and as readily falls into a certain attitude of wonder at beholding such an infinity of natural objects in, to him, an unnatural dress. The f loors groaning with the weight of gigantic skeletons of extinct animals ; the side cases filled with the [-108-] grand procession of organised life, from the vegetable to the highest order of animal life; the upper galleries shining with a vast army of bottles, the depositories of Nature's more subtile secrets; the shelves full of monstrosities and malformations, and the glass cases rich in physical curiosities illustrative of the accidents to which life is subjected. Here a series of tadpoles, from the time the creature leaves the ovum to that period of adolescence when, contrary to the human example, it casts its tail ; there a couple of gigantic American elk horns, fast locked in conflict, — the doe for which the animals had been fighting was found dead beside the entangled belligerents; a little further on the skeleton of poor Chunee — the hapless elephant who suffered death at Exeter Change for the crime of having the toothache —his skull riddled with balls, showing that the file of soldiers who did the murder were not possessed of the skill of the great hunter, Gordon Cumming, who dropped his elephant of a hundred summers with one ball judiciously planted. Turn which way he will, where in fact all is order, he sees nothing but confusion. Under these circumstances we cannot do better than take the visitor by the hand, and let his attention fall naturally upon the most prominent objects.
    There is evidently a natural determination of giants towards the museum. The most striking object the eye meets on entering the .first large room is the skeleton of the Irish giant, O'Bryan. His fate was a memorable example of how vain is the struggle men of such extravagant development wage against the anatomist. Poor O'Bryan, who drank himself to death, evidently had a presentiment of the manner in which his body would be [-109-] disposed of; and he tried to avert it by directing that his body should be sunk in the deep, and in order to provide for this disposition of it, two men were provided to watch it until the time for the burial came. But Hunter could not bring himself to let slip such an opportunity to acquire such a " specimen," and he attempted to bribe the wretches by offering them a hundred pounds for it. His eagerness was too apparent, however, and these trustworthy individuals managed to raise the price to £800! The prize obtained, Hunter sent it home in his own carriage, and fearing lest it should be claimed, immediately dismembered, and boiled it. The writer of the description in the catalogue apologetically refers to the consequent brown appearance of the skeleton, in the same spirit as a clear-starcher would of the unsatisfactory "get up" of a piece of fine linen. It does not appear to make much difference to O'Bryan, however, who is posed in an easy attitude, with one arm hanging carelessly by his side, and the other held elegantly aloft, towering by the head and shoulders over another "rough sketch of man," which stands upon an opposite pedestal. In the glass cases which fill the left-hand comer of the upper end of the room, other giants with a commendable modesty keep in the back ground. Freeman, the American pugilist, as far as the whiteness of his bones is concerned, cannot complain of his " getting up ;" and in the other corner a gigantic tinker forms a becoming pendant. This man when in the flesh used to pass by the college, and do odd jobs, and in return he is conveniently housed in this comfortable glass case. At the bottom of the glass case we see the outstretched hands of other giants marked — the English giant, Bradley; the French giant, [-110-] Mons. Lewis, seven feet four inches; the Irish giant, Patrick Cotter, eight feet seven inches. They seem to hold up their hands in testimony of their stature ere they finally subside to the level of mother earth. But what is there particular about that rather short and powerful skeleton between the two larger ones? The attendant takes out his card, which lies against the wall in the shape of a coffin-plate thus inscribed:—

Wilde Died
May 24th 1725
In ye 42d year
of his age

The card forgets to give his last address, doubtless from motives of delicacy. Tyburn was not such a fashionable neighbourhood then as it has since become. There is nothing about the present appearance of the great thief-catcher which at all reminds one of his bad pre-eminence in life. In all probability, many of the skeletons about him were those of thieves and murderers; for of old the [-111-] conservator of the museum was dissecter in ordinary to all malefactors executed in London. Nevertheless, Wilde seems no longer to scent his prey, and the hunter and hunted are at last at peace, — at least when they are not being dusted, which I am assured is done by one of the porters three times a year with the utmost impartiality. In an adjoining glass case there are specimens of Australian and African skeletons, which present certain differences from the European type which are highly interesting to the comparative anatomist. How clearly we see the countenance of the Bosjesman in the facial bones of the skull, and how feeble is the framework of the Australian savage when compared with that of the European, enervated, as some people choose to say, with an ultra civilisation. At the opposite end of this room there are some human mummies, which we must not omit to notice. For instance, there stands Mrs. Van Butchell, who has most certainly not been preserved for her beauty. We are apt to think that in this age we have arrived at the very perfection of advertising, direct and indirect; yet here is a specimen of the ability of the last century, which will bear comparison with our best efforts. Think of a charlatan utilising his defunct partner in this direction! Van Butchell, who would seem to have been a kind of St John Long of his day, appears to have had his wife embalmed — on the same principle that Barnum stuffed his mermaid  — to draw the public purse; and like that worthy he advertised his wares judiciously in the public press. On the breast of the lady, for instance, we find a card inscribed with the following notice from the St. James's Chronicle of October 21st, 1773: —
    [-112-] "Van Butchell (not wishing to be unfortunately circumstanced, and wishing to convince some good minds they have been misinformed) acquaints the curious no stranger can see his embalmed wife unless (by a friend personally) introduced to himself any day between nine and one, Sundays excepted."
    What could induce persons to pay a visit to Mr. Van Butchell in order to see such a shocking spectacle we cannot conceive. In this collection the body is by no means out of place, flanked on either hand by an Egyptian mummy, and by the preserved remains of a woman who died in the Lock Hospital, whilst a dried specimen of the genus homo, sitting crouched up on his haunches, looks on apparently amazed at the change of scene he experiences from Guaco at Caxamana, in Peru. There is food for conjecture in another skeleton of a young lad close at hand. All his history is comprised in the fact that he was found erect in a vault, with the remnants of his clothes on, under St. Botolph's, Aldgate, old church, in the year 1742. The last time the vault had been opened was during the Great Plague in 1665, so that in all probability the poor little fellow was employed in some way in the interment, and must have been forgotten by the workmen when the vault was finally closed.
    Next to the cases containing the human skeletons is a golgotha, or place of skulls. These domes of bone tell of the wide diversity of power that ranges through the human race. Here we have the full scale, from the head of the Caucasian type (a line from the forehead of which to the lower jaw is almost perpendicular) to that of the Carib (in which the line slants outwards towards the jaw with a most [-113-] animal-like slant). If the visitor will take the trouble to examine the skull of the gorilla, a gigantic chimpanzee, in the adjoining room, he will see that between the skull of the most debased tribe of mankind and that of the highest ape, the difference is immense. The gorilla's skull seems all taken up with the facial bones, the powerful lower jaw occupying the most prominent part; indeed, in this respect it contrasts ill with the skulls of several of the lower monkeys, which in general form seem to parody but too closely that of man. We may see at a glance in these skulls the prominent races of mankind. The small Tartar physiognomy is traced in those prominent high cheek bones, the delicate Hindoo in that small fine skull of most fragile construction. Again, we see the race of narrow foreheads in the Australian and New Guinea skulls. Here and there we find that the skull has been utilised as a water-vessel, a piece of twisted native grass passing through the orbits and the great foramen by way of handle.
    The Scandinavians used, it is said, to drink mead out of the skulls of their ancestors; the natives of Western Australia use "the dome of thought" as a calabash in which to carry water. Here is a specimen in which the water has clearly been poured from the eye-holes, as the edges of the bones have been quite polished by the friction of the fluid. The Polynesians have a custom of ornament ing their skulls. Among the collection before us there is one with eyes of wood hideously projecting from the sockets, and with a kind of comical bowsprit running out from the nose. But how comes this high-browed Caucasian skull among those of the lowest type of savages? All the catalogue tells us is that it came from South Australia, the [-114-] natives of which were known at one time to have been cannibals. There are traces of fire still to be seen upon the temporal bones, and we may draw the dark inference that its owner must have been some European dispatched and eaten ages ago. Strange that, through the agencies of science, this grim relic should have made the circuit of the globe to testify to the fact!
    The osteological  collection, mainly the work of Hunter, from the human skeletons we have been looking at, descends in an unbroken chain down to the lowest insect life. It is curious to contrast the 'beautifully-dissected framework of the minute humming-bird with that of the gigantic dinornis of New Zealand, the imperfect skeleton of which towers above us from its appropriate pedestal. The history of these bones affords a proof of the marvellously prophetical powers of science. Some years ago a few very large bones, found in a New Zealand watercourse, were brought to this country and submitted to the inspection of Professor Owen, then the curator of the museum. After a careful study of their peculiarities, he pronounced them to belong to an extinct wingless bird of gigantic proportions. At the time his scientific friends merely smiled at the poetical flight of the Professor, and attempted to discourage what they considered to be his rashness in building such a superstructure upon a few disjointed bits of bone: he persisted, however, in his opinions, and has lived to find them verified, as whole skeletons of these extraordinary birds have since been found, proving that they belong to that class of which the apteryx in the Zoological Gardens is now the diminutive and sole living representative. There are in the museum some eggs of the [-115-] dinornis, and casts of those of a still larger species once living in the Island of Madagascar, a section of which would be big enough for a foot-bath.
    The curiosities of the museum are the points which principally attract the non-professional visitors, and among these are some singular examples of the desperate injuries the human frame can sustain with comparative impunity. For instance, here is the shaft of a chaise; some fine day in the year 1812, we are informed, it tranfixed the chest of a certain Mr. Tipple, entering under the left arm and coming out under the right arm; and, in confirmation of the story, we find in a large bottle close at hand a preparation of the chest bones, integument, and lungs, showing the cicatrices of the old wound and the manner in which the lungs had been injured. Nevertheless, the object of this unpleasant operation lived eleven years afterwards, and drove, for all we know, his tax-cart as jollily as before. In a recess close at hand is a drawing of another accident of a similar nature, in which, however, the chest was subjected to a still more severe trial in a contrary direction. John Toylor, a Prussian, "whilst guiding the pivot of the trysail mast into the main boom, the tackle gave way; the pivot passed obliquely through his body, apparently between the heart and the left lung:" Notwithstanding this spitting process, the man got quite well, and bas been several times to the museum with his shipmates to view the drawing, quite proud of his achievement; and, in order to further illustrate the case, he promises to dedlicate his chest to the museum after his death!
    If we traverse the pathological gallery we shall find [-116-] some astounding examples of the tolerance with which the stomach will bear the presence of very awkward foreign bodies. This one, for example, is full of pins, bent double in the form of fish-hooks. When we see a poor dyspeptic patient attribute his misery to "that bit of plum cake he took over night," we cannot help thinking of the secret this woman must have possessed to deliberately swallow crooked pins until she had accumulated a couple of lbs. in her stomach without any seeming inconvenience. Close at hand, in a bottle, we see a juggler's "failure"' in the shape of a dagger swallowed not wisely "but too well." It was fast disappearing under the effects of the gastric juice, but, unfortunately, the patient could not wait for the completion of the digestive process. Very near there is another bottle full of the remains of clasp knives. The patient's stomach in this case had managed to dissolve all the handles, and nothing was left but the bare frameworks of iron and the blades. What would half the over-fed, under-worked class of valetudinarians give for such a splendid organ! If we descend to the floor of the museum once more, we shall find a few odd things to show the visitor. In this glass case, devoted to skin curiosities, we come suddenly upon a little bit of historical illustration. These little dry remnants of brown-looking leather take us back to the times of the Anglo-Saxons, and tell a tale of those lawless times. We read in romance of the daring sea-kings, but here is a plain and a very ugly bit of prose, in the shape of specimens of skins from flayed Northmen, caught plundering our churches. Our ancestors had a trick of nailing the hides of those they caught thus amusing themselves, upon the church doors "pour d'en-[-117-] courager les autres," and the specimens we see have been taken from the church-doors of Hedstock and Copford in Essex, and from the north door of Worcester. Seeing that these remnants of frail humanity must have been thus exposed for upwards of a thousand years, there seems to bet some truth in the boast that there is "nothing like leather." There is a very stout piece of dermis near those Danish fragments, which looks remarkably like a piece of india-rubber, but the catalogue informs us that it is "from the shoulder of a remarkably stout man, and was tanning from April to September;" a very obdurate piece of skin, doubtless, but we do not see the scientific importance of the explanation. In the frame devoted to the concretions found in the human organs are some remarkable examples of human hair, matted and felted together so as to form a solid mass — in one instance pretty nearly the shape and size of that organ itself. Some girls have an inveterate habit of swallowing hairs, and in this instance the patient must have almost denuded her head. Cows are liable to these concretions, and there are some remarkable instances of them here, but they are collected accidentally in the act of licking. We particularly desire to draw the attention of Scotchmen to an ugly lump, which the label informs us is composed of oat-hairs and husks, found in the stomach of a man in the habit of taking oatmeal porridge !
    Of surgical injuries these glass cases contain many extraordinary examples: there are some skulls penetrated at Inkermann with Miniť balls, showing the terrible nature of the wounds inflicted by modern projectiles; and skulls, again, which prove what gashes may be made in solid [-118-] bone by sabre cuts, without doing any injury to the brain; possibly, as these skulls are Chinese, their extra thickness may have been a protection.
    Glancing through the glass-cases devoted to the teeth of the various animals, we notice what appear to be some singular rings of bone. On referring to the catalogue we find they are the incisor teeth of rodents, or gnawing animals. We are apt to think that the rat and the beaver gnaw for mere mischief's sake, or, at least, to work their way through obstacles; but these specimens prove that the process is a necessity to keep their teeth down. The curved incisors are always growing, and unless they are worn away proportionately, they at last curve round so as to prevent the animal eating.
    We must not omit to draw attention to some remarkable examples of diseased skulls, some of them, at least, an inch thick, others presenting extraordinary osseous growth from the facial bones. We beg to draw Tom Sayers' attention to one particular specimen, in which masses of diseased bone have grown from the orbits, forming projections of at least three inches; its late owner was a prize-fighter; and those frightful growths are attributed to the injuries he had received in pugilistic encounters. One more curiosity and we have done with the show specimens of the museum. Here is the lower jaw of an ancient Roman, with the stains on one of the molar teeth of the obolus, or small copper coin, placed in his mouth, as Charon's fare to carry him over the Styx : as the coin evidently remained in between his teeth, we must conclude he was too late for the ferry.
    We have been trifling, however, with the mere toys of  [-119-]  this magnificent collection; the real scientific gold of the musem is to be found in the little army of uninviting-looking bottles which line the walls from the ground-floor upwards. The Pathological museum, the first room we enter, contains a history of disease written upon the different organs and tissues of the human body itself. We do not stop to dwell upon mere curiosities here, but mark the methods by which this mortal frame is gradually sapped and destroyed; or how nature wrestles with the destroyer, and sometimes repairs the ravages he has committed. Amid the immense mass of preparations, it is rather difficult to single out examples of the vis medicatrix naturoe; but as we pass, we may notice the contrivances by which our great mother sets about her work. Here, for instance, is a preparation of a mortified foot. See how nature has set to work, and entrenched herself against the further spread of death. The living and the blackened portions of flesh seemed divided as if by a sharp knife, and across this gap death cannot leap. Or note again this diseased bone, and the delicate way in which the reparative process is to be seen building up a new framework of osseous matter within it. Again, be a witness of the manner in which it gets over the difficulty of a stoppage in a blood-vessel. Here is the example of the femoral artery, the great highway of blood in the thigh, having been tied. by the surgeon. If, by this means, an impediment to the circulation in the lower limb had occurred, the limb would have died. But nature makes provisions for such accidents, and carries the blood, as we see in this specimen, through some small collateral channel, which gradually accommodates itself to the in-[-120-] creased work put upon it, and becomes a large vessel. When Fleet Street is stopped up by gas or water companies, the tide of human life is turned along some back street, until it finds the great thoroughfare clear again; so it is with the main conduits which convey the sanguineous tide in the human body.
    Unhappily. however, nature is not always successful in this fight with disease; nay, in the majority of cases, her exertions are painfully feeble, and but too often the destroyer has proceeded from the first with unconquerable steps, and human life has appeared to form a passive framework on which it builds its monstrosities. Look, for instance, at that example of elephantiasis, or the leg and thigh of a woman, pretty nearly as large as the shaft of a Doric column; or inspect that cabinet of wen-like tumours in which the whole nutritive process seems to have gone through life to support and inflate enormous growths, until at last the human fabric appears only to be a dwindled and accidental appendage to the dominant balloon-like tumour. If we would still continue our survey of the sad mischances to which poor humanity is subject, let us glance at the curious skeleton in which all the bones are anchylosed, or knotted together by osseous growth, so as to be tied into a perfectly immobile knot. Again, we may see bones so brittle that they fly to pieces on the least strain, like the glass toy known as a Prince Rupert's drop, or arteries so solidified that in life they must have clasped and stifled in their solid grip the labouring and heaving human heart. We might fill pages with details of morbid specimens of unutterable value to the scientific man, but which we fear would only impel the more [-121-] curious visitor to turn aside from these articles to more congenial topics.
    Now and then Hunter amused himself with trying grotesque experiments upon life. In this Museum are examples of animal graftings — a human tooth growing from a cock's comb, and a spur from the animal growing in the same way.
    The physiological portion of the museum, which possesses by far the most interest to the general visitor, was the portion to which Hunter gave the main strength of his remarkable genius. Comparative anatomy was the delight of his life, and the practice of it seemed to have formed his relaxation from other studies. Let us take the first glass case and inspect the leaf dissected by the winter weather, and trace up the series to that of the highest mammal, man, whose exquisite nervous system is dissected into filaments, even finer than those of the leaf, and we shall be able to estimate the enormous amount of labour presented by this portion of the collection. Here, if we may so speak, nature seems to sit in undress: first we see a perfect Noah's ark of skeletons, or bony frameworks on which the softer parts are modelled and upheld. Then follow groups of dissections, preserved in spirit, by which the machinery of the different organs of animals are made patent to us. Every portion of the animal economy which is subservient to the preservation of the individual, or to the preservation of the race, lies here exposed to the view of the philosophical student. Motor organs, digestive organs, the absorbent, circulating, respiratory, nervous, and eliminative systems of the different orders of animal life, by the careful aid of the dissector's .scalpel, give up the history of their [-122-] hidden functions to anyone who enters this temple of science with a willing and inquiring mind.
    When we reflect upon the enormous experience of the man who thus unveiled so large a portion of animal life to our scrutiny, we are tempted to ask, what literary records has he left of his 1ife-long labours, the material evidence of which lies before us? It cannot be imagined that the observant mind of Hunter, after having laid bare, as it were, the constructive subtleties of Nature, had not obtained the key to many an enigma which still remains to puzzle natural philosophers: indeed, we know that he made careful notes of his observations in comparative anatomy, which extended to ten folio volumes of MS., besides many others on physiology and pathology. That Hunter placed great value on these volumes may be gathered from the fact that he introduced them himself into the grouping of his portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Of these manuscripts, more valuable perhaps than the museum itself, that picture contains the only visible representative; the originals having been committed to the flames by his brother-in-law, Sir Everard Home, in order to conceal the theft he had made from them in his own numerous papers read to the Royal Society. A more astounding instance of literary incendiarism is not perhaps on record, and it affords us some clue to the degraded social character of the Georgian era in which the perpetrator of such an act lived, that. it did not in any way appear to influence his position, much less to exclude him. as it should have done, from the society of an honest men.