A long time ago, Dawn suggested we go to an exhibition at the Museum of London called Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men. She was interested because of her PhD studies into skeletal remains; I was interested just because I’m interested in most things.
Well, it’s been a long wait but today was the day and we duly met at Waterloo for the number 4 bus to Archway. It seems like so long ago that I’d get this bus to uni for my Masters but the route is indelibly imprinted on my brain. The Museum of London is on this route.
And, surprise, surprise, Dawn has her own Oyster card! What a difference that makes. No more frantically searching for change then a working ticket machine. She sometimes takes a while to embrace technology but when she does she realises how crazy she was not to embrace it quicker.
We were joined by Katie, a bone expert who Dawn is working with at uni. She is an amazing authority on the human skeleton. Bones hold no secrets from Katie. Naturally, once she heard about the exhibition, she wanted in. Somehow she managed to buy a ticket for the wrong day but the understanding ticket people eventually forgave her and let her in.
The first skeleton we came to, she leaned over and rattled off all manner of information about it, mostly in Latin. Dawn translated perfectly, so a mere mortal like me could understand.
The exhibition came about because of a dig at the Royal London Hospital. They found a grave yard that no-one knew about. The skeletal remains all showed evidence of having been used for dissection demonstrations during the early 19th century. Someone then had the genius idea to build an exhibition around it, highlighting the infamous body snatchers.
The whole exhibition was dark, gloomy, almost menacing with interesting displays about these Resurrection Men. There was information about Burke and Hare, the infamous Edinburgh body snatchers and how, after them, the act of stealing dead bodies became known as ‘Burking’ (it’s not recorded how Hare felt about it not being called ‘Haring’…though they were both hanged so I guess he didn’t really care that much).
There was a wonderful short video of a poem, telling the mournful story of the Little Italian Boy, read beautifully by a delightfully grave Ray Winstone. We saw an iron coffin, specially fitted with a latch, making it impossible to lever open, which people insisted on having, in order to avoid having their bodies snatched. And there were the amazing wax body parts of Joseph Towne.
Joseph Towne was an incredible young man. Without the benefit of actually seeing a human skeleton, he managed to make one at the age of 17. Having trained as an artist from a young age, he first tried using wax by making a plaster cast of his hand and pouring wax into it.
In 1825, he presented his skeleton to the surgeon, Astley Cooper, who was suitably stunned at the accuracy and skill. Joseph found himself making wax objects for the next 35 years, mainly at Guy’s Hospital.
Joseph was seriously concerned that people would steal his methods so he worked, leaning over a table with a sheet over his head. I understand the need to take care, but I do wonder why he couldn’t have just locked the door and closed the curtains. Still, in this way, he made over a thousand wax models for Guy’s.
In 1832, The Anatomy Act was introduced, successfully putting an end to all the illegal appropriation of dead bodies. The Act made it law that anybody, dying in a hospital and left unclaimed, could be sent to a medical school and be used for dissection. The Act remained in force until 2004 when it was replaced by the Human Tissue Act. The best bit of the original Act for me was that you had to opt out of it. The new Act requires the opposite which means there are a lot less bodies for medical students to work on.
This creates a bit of a dilemma. If I was about to have surgery, I’d want to know that the doctor had actually worked on a human body before starting on me. A simulation is all well and good but it’s a bit like flying a huge passenger jet – they’re not going to let you fly a full one if all you’ve done is successfully land a flight simulator.
Dawn and I immediately decided we’d donate our bodies to medical science. She claimed mine would be a real treat, given my broken bones, gout and inexplicably irritating feet. Actually, talking about broken bones…there was an example of a Collis fracture in one display and when Dawn pointed it out, this old lady suddenly asked me if it hurts as much as they say. I told her to imagine the amputations without anaesthetic we’d just walked by and she’d get an inkling. She blanched and walked away.
All in all, a lovely exhibition with just one problem. There was no guide book. There was a lovely, solid, heavy volume which went into a lot greater depth, priced accordingly, but not a handy little £5 guide which would remind the visitor of their experience. Photographs were also prohibited. I was totally miffed that I’d have to remember everything in order to write this blog. I think I’ve more or less managed it.