Skip to content

At Barts Pathology Museum

August 14, 2013
by the gentle author

You enter a door at the hospital and over it are the words, ‘Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.’ Then the first thing you come upon as you climb the stairs is a vast stone sarcophagus, stored on the landing as if it were a spare piece of medical equipment. It is wedged half open as if the inhabitant had climbed out and could return at any moment, and a sign above it warns ‘Smoking Prohibited,’ just in case they considered lighting up.

By the time you reach the top of the winding staircase in this lonely corner of West Smithfield, you are emotionally prepared to enter Barts Pathology Museum – one of the saddest and strangest places I have ever been. Arranged in bottles and jars, preserved in fluids and organised upon shelves spanning three storeys, is a vast, encyclopaedic collection of human body parts acquired by the hospital over centuries, for the study of anatomy and ailments. There are more varieties of carcinomas and hernias, more malformations and deformations, more ways that the human body can be blighted and broken than in your worst nightmares.

Each one of the five thousand specimens represents a different example of human suffering, and you stand overawed to see pain quantified and categorised in this way. Gazing around from the centre of the room at the expansive galleries that run floor to ceiling, I became wary to approach the display in any direction out of reluctance at what I might discover.

In such a circumstance, Contributing Photographer Patricia Niven & I were grateful to be greeted by the pragmatic enthusiasm of Carla Valentine, Technical Assistant Curator. “I’m a mortician,” she admitted reassuringly, “for eight years, I worked in  mortuaries doing autopsies, but this is what I always wanted to do. I wanted to do it since I was ten, I think some people are born to do this. I was always cutting up slugs and worms from the garden, and probably I was a weird child.”

Carla has been employed to work upon the conservation of the collection.“They’re all leaking over there,” she revealed, gesturing to a long gallery lined with organs in bottles that she has been transferring into safe containers. I learnt that in recent decades, the practice of preserving new specimens has ceased, except in rare cases. “The only people who are placed in here now are those who choose to be,” Carla explained helpfully, “if,  for example, they have some unusual cancer that they want to have put on display.”

Eager to reward our interest, Carla drew our attention to the case of foreign objects extracted from the human body – the toothbrush removed from the oesophagus in 1944, the pencil case removed from the bladder in 1932, the needle removed from the heart in 1879, the torch removed from the rectum in 1933 and the metal dart removed from the brain at an unspecified date. It became apparent that each specimen had its own story, even if they were not always obvious.

“We have a lot of Victorian factory workers,” Carla informed me, moving on and indicating a case of semi-disintegrated jaw bones that were examples of ‘Phossy Jaw’ – the condition acquired by those who worked with phosphorus in the manufacture of matches. Beside them were specimens that illustrated ‘Chimney Sweeps’ Cancer’ – the testicular cancer  that came about as a result of a life spent climbing up chimneys. And then there was the fractured mandible of the fourteen year old boy whose head was caught between the rollers of a rotary printing machine and died a week later. And I shall not easily forget the metal cap designed to hold together the broken pieces of the skull of a man run over by a carriage, that enabled him to live several years after.

Proudly, Carla showed us the inguinal hernia from around 1750 that is the earliest specimen in the collection, preserved by Percivall Potts – one of the museum’s most celebrated curators. “Unfortunately the perspex box was leaking, so I decided that – for the safety of the specimen and for aesthetic appeal – I would put the hernia into a glass pot with fresh fluid.” Carla confided to me cheerfully. You stand helpless in front of these examples and others, nodding politely at the explanations and feeling numb as you seek to discover a relationship with what you are seeing. The skull of John Bellingham who murdered the Prime Minister in 1812 and the skull of a Norman killed at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 leer back at you, and a vision of the largest centipede you ever saw in your life that, although safely preserved in a glass bottle, nevertheless wriggles deep into your consciousness.

There is certain grim grandeur to this museum designed by Edward l’Anson in 1878, where mustachioed busts of James Paget and John Hunter, two nineteenth curators, stare eternally upon their creations from either end of the gallery. Once you have confronted the detail for yourself, you cannot but admire the moral courage of those who were unflinching in their pursuit of medical science. As Carla Valentine concluded sagely, this is a museum of how we got to where we are today in medicine. Yet I could not resist a surge of personal grief when confronted with particular examples of afflictions suffered by those I have known closely and so, after everything I had seen, it made me grateful for my own good health.

In a lonely corner of the hospital.

“Whatsoever they hand findeth to do, do it with thy might”

The sarcophagus on the stair.

Specimens of ‘Chimney Sweeps’ Cancer’

Carla Valentine, Technical Assistant Curator & Mortician.

The oldest specimen is this inguinal hernia from around 1750, preserved by by Percivall Potts.

Specimens of ‘Phossy jaw’ – a decay of the jaw bone caused by exposure to phosphorus and suffered by workers in East End match factories in the nineteenth century.

Bladder stones

Skull of John Bellingham, the assassin who killed  the Prime Minister, Spencer Percival, in 1812.

A rat that suffered from tuberculosis

Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven

Archive images courtesy of the Royal London Hospital Archives

Follow the Pathology Museum blog Potts’ Pots

Learn about  forthcoming Autumn Seminars at the Pathology Museum.

You may also like to read about

Hogarth at Barts

A Dead Man in Clerkenwell

10 Responses leave one →
  1. A granny permalink
    August 14, 2013

    One wonders how the gentle author finds these places?!! Fascinating information although perhaps not meant to be read before bedtime……

  2. Ana permalink
    August 14, 2013

    Love it.
    If I was there, I’d be visiting.
    It takes me back to my days studying anatomy at university as part of a science degree. Museums like these make us all appreciate how hardy [or fragile, depending on how one perceives it] the human body is.

  3. Steve permalink
    August 14, 2013

    Although not usually open to the public I jumped at the chance to visit and eat cupcakes with STD pustules, varicose veins and the like iced on the top last Hallowe’en.
    A fascinating collection and a surreal experience.

    Thank you for the reminder.

  4. August 14, 2013

    love this one as my daughter from neviepiecakes..made the “rotten toes” from cake that were used in the event put on by misscakehead earlier in the year…fantastic!!

  5. Cherub permalink
    August 15, 2013

    I had never heard about chimney sweeps getting testicular cancer and can only assume this had something to do with what was in soot? As for the jars of stones, my husband passed a kidney stone about 3 months ago after suffering niggling pain for weeks then almost fainting in agony one night – I’ll be showing him these to let him see what he was actually carrying around with him. It might just remind him some aches and pains do need a doctor to check them out!

  6. John Campbell permalink
    August 17, 2013

    Found this Cherub which may be of help,
    …doctors traced the source of the cancer to sending boys up still-hot chimneys (a common practice), which made them sweat and allowed soot to adhere to their wet skin. The scrotum’s many wrinkles provided an especially fine home for grime, especially when (another common practice) boys climbed naked and their thighs rubbed against their junk in the tight spaces, grinding the soot in. Chimney sweeps also had a well-earned reputation (even by 1700s standards) as being pretty indifferent to bathing, which meant the scrotum soot never got washed away. After years of such abuse, in Pott’s memorable summary, the cancer awakens and “seizes the testicle, which it enlarges, hardens, and renders truly and thoroughly distempered.”
    PS. That Carla Valentine is a lovely looking lady!

  7. John Campbell permalink
    August 17, 2013

    …and there’s more!!
    The life of your average English chimney sweep was pretty crappy. Practically from the time they could walk, sweeps spent hours each day scrambling up into claustrophobic brick chimneys—some just 9 inches deep by 14 inches wide—in order to clean out grime and even put out the odd fire. At best, they emerged filthy with coal soot, their knees scraped raw from the climb. At worst, the sweeps got stuck, especially in crooked chimneys and chimneys narrowed by years of atherosclerotic soot buildup. If they got really stuck, a bricklayer would have to be found to cut them out, but not infrequently the poor lads suffocated in the meantime.

    On top of all that, in later life, even if they’d squirmed up their last chimney decades earlier, the sweeps became susceptible to scrotal cancer. It started as scrotum warts. Many sweeps dispatched these warts by squeezing them between a split piece of wood and popping them off with knives or razors. Eventually, though, a sort of mesa of raised red skin appeared and turned into a smelly sore, which might spread to the thighs or anus. Doctors would either prescribe arsenic paste to slough the sores off, or operate and remove swaths of scrotum. Often, though, the sweep waited too long to seek care, and he would die.
    Not such a jolly ‘oliday with Mary was it?

  8. August 20, 2013

    Thank you John Campbell for the lovely comment AND for the chimney sweep info. I’m currently writing a book about the collection and hope to really bring all these stories to life (pardon the pun!)
    The Eat Your Heart Out event that I put on with miss cakehead was a great success and I still have plenty of other interesting ideas on how to engage people with a collection such as this – watch this space!

  9. John Campbell permalink
    August 20, 2013

    Phew! Glad you weren’t offended. Pressed ‘submit comment’and then thought that maybe i should not be telling people online how lovely they look. Hey, no harm done, thats good. Really enjoyed reading the article about your work there, fascinating stuff. hope to make one of the events sometime. Good luck with all your projects, John.

  10. May 11, 2015

    I’d love to visit this museum someday. As a child of a physician, I grew up skimming through medical and surgical textbooks on my Dad’s bookshelves and I always wondered why medical specimens struck people as being so macabre…I just cannot relate to that view, but I have a pretty good idea why lol

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS