The Hunterian Museum, named after the 18th century surgeon and anatomist, John Hunter (1728-1793), will reopen in March 2023 following a five-year redevelopment of the Royal College of Surgeons of England’s headquarters at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in central London.
The £4.6 million museum development includes the display of over 2,000 anatomical preparations from Hunter’s original collection, alongside instruments, equipment, models, paintings and archive material, which trace the history of surgery from ancient times to the latest robot-assisted operations. The Museum includes England’s largest public display of human anatomy.
The Hunterian Museum and the Royal College of Surgeons of England
The Hunterian Museum has a long association with the Royal College of Surgeons of England. Following John Hunter’s death in 1793, the UK Government bought his museum, of 14,000 specimens and preparations, and in 1799 gave it into the safekeeping of the Corporation of Surgeons (later the Royal College of Surgeons of England) for medical education and training. The independent Board of Trustees of the Hunterian Collection was established to oversee the long-term care and use of Hunter’s Collection. The new building erected in Lincoln’s Inn Fields to accommodate the Museum first opened in May 1813.
The skeleton of Charles Byrne
The best-known human anatomical specimen in Hunter’s collection is the skeleton of Charles Byrne. Byrne had an undiagnosed benign tumour of his pituitary gland, an adenoma, which caused acromegaly and gigantism. He lived with these conditions and grew to be 7’7’’ (2.31m) tall. In the last years of his life, he made a living exhibiting himself as the ‘Irish Giant’. He died in 1783 and it has been said that to prevent his body being seized by anatomists he wanted to be buried at sea. Hunter paid Byrne’s friends to handover Byrne’s body. Three years later Hunter displayed Byrne’s skeleton in his Leicester Square museum, and part of it is shown in the background of the portrait of Hunter by Sir Joshua Reynolds. This portrait will be on public display in the new Museum for the first time in over two hundred years.
During the period of closure of the Museum, the Board of Trustees of the Hunterian Collection discussed the sensitivities and the differing views surrounding the display and retention of Charles Byrne’s skeleton. The Trustees agreed that Charles Byrne’s skeleton will not be displayed in the redeveloped Hunterian Museum but will still be available for bona fide medical research into the condition of pituitary acromegaly and gigantism.
Dawn Kemp, Director of Museums and Special Collections at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said: “The Hunterian Museum is one of the very few places in the UK where the public are able to see specimens prepared specifically to show human anatomy. Under the Human Tissue Act it is only possible to publicly display human remains known to be more than 100 years old. The history of surgery is dramatic and often unsettling with stories of terrible human suffering. Yet historic medical collections, like the Hunterian, are also incredibly valuable in giving us a better understanding of our own health and wellbeing and the complex issues that have arisen in the development of the art and science of surgery’’.
Image: Portrait of John Hunter (1728-1793) by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), 1785.
Photo credit: Copyright: Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons of England