A Pathological Curiosity – Bart’s Pathology Museum
The national treasure is back in the public domain after a long break.
Bart’s Pathology Museum is a new addition to the array of medical museums in London, only having been opened to the public in August 2014. Its rescue from disarray has seen its transformation as a working teaching resource in the late 19th century, to a derelict building straight out of a horror writer’s nightmare, to a fascinating insight into the history of medicine and public venue with a wealth of unusual events. It has even played a large part in British literary culture that still lives on today. For such a comparatively small space, the museum carries with it great historic significance.
Based in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital at West Smithfield, it was completed in 1878 and opened the year after. The design is an ode to the Victorian era’s love of glass. The layout is open plan, similar in that regards to the Berlin Medical History Museum, providing an ethereally light backdrop to its contents which are decidedly darker in nature. The glass ceiling is its architectural crowning achievement, hovering over its spiral staircase that links its 3 mezzanine levels. Sadly, its relevance was short lived. Pathology had its heyday in the 1920s and 30s, and due to changes in the way that medicine was taught the Pathology Museum became irrelevant as a useful teaching tool. That said, during its brief golden era, it had a huge impact on British culture as it emblemised the logical mind-set of the scientific process. This is impact is most notable within the works of Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle, who chose it as the location for the pivotal first meeting between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson in ‘A Study in Scarlett’ that was first published in 1887. So strong was his tie to the museum that he allegedly wrote some of his short stories from the series in the office currently inhabited by the curator. This link can still be seen today in British society’s relationship to the history of the Sherlock narrative, as it was the featured location in the recent BBC series’ shocking ‘Reichenback Falls’ episode. It’s good to see a strain of humorous eccentric wit alive and kicking in the collective British public persona, as the phone booth outside Bart’s is covered in messages and prayers for Sherlock’s safety, and a plaque commemorating the meeting of the crime-solving duo is proudly hung in the main hall of the museum.
The contents of Bart’s Pathology Museum often seem to have been torn straight from fiction. Their collection of over 5,000 specimens features more standard examples of the harrowing effects of illness upon the body in the form of preserved Gout-ridden hands, as well as the deformed liver of a woman who wore tight corsets, the preserved foot of a Chinese woman who had her feet bound, and John Bellingham’s anatomised remains. John Bellingham is the most historically significant part of the collection, and represents a turning point in the legislation of criminal’s remains. Bellingham assassinated the British Prime Minster in 1812, and was sentenced to be ‘hung and anatomised’. This provides an insight into the system of cadaver procurement in effect during the 19th century. During this era there were only two options for medical schools to obtain much needed bodies: prisoners sentenced to death and then dissection, or purchased from the Resurrection Men. It was this dissection of Bellingham at the Royal College in 1812 that led directly to their ‘Regulations Relating the Bodies of Murderers’ being written. This was a set of guidelines specifically meant to ensure that the dissection of criminals was not a public spectacle and was done purely for medical knowledge. The use of his body was not without note either: during this time medics were highly interested in reanimation, and were able to make his heart move for nearly 4 hours after his death.
Although the dissection of criminals is no longer a public spectacle, Bart’s ensures that it carries on a more humane version of the tradition of medical spectacles. Unfortunately, the museum is not always open to the public, but this is more than made up for by the array of unusual events held there on a regular basis. Aside from the expected assortment of lectures (past ones have been on the topics of contraception during the Victorian era, Vincent Price, and the poisons of Agatha Christie), there are dumb suppers (a silent supper that pays respect to the dead in which the only noise is a four-string quartet and all the courses are served in reverse order), film screenings, and even taxidermy classes.
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located at 3rd Floor Robin Brook Centre, St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, West Smithfield, EC1A 7BE