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At The Pathology Museum

December 19, 2017
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

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11 Responses leave one →
  1. Leana Pooley permalink
    December 19, 2017

    What a lovely elegant place – whose contents had me squirming as I ate my porridge. I’m now wondering whether the torch-up bum was left there by some incompetent investigating doctor. And the glamorous Carla Valentine in the midst of it all. All I can say is oooo-er-missus!

  2. Ashley permalink
    December 19, 2017

    Fascinating! But glad you’ve posted this before Christmas and got it out of the way before the festivities begin!

  3. December 19, 2017

    I remember having a guided tour of a similar museum at The London Hospital, maybe 10 years ago. I wonder what happened to its contents.

  4. December 19, 2017

    Compelling but I identify with your reticence, GA. Love the before and after shots of the whole room. So glad this museum still exists.

  5. Susan permalink
    December 19, 2017

    I think Carla Valentine needs to connect with mortician Caitlin Doughty, the founder of The Order of The Good Death (they have a Facebook page, as well as a website). Doughty is famous in North America for her alternative approaches to the subject of death. (Her “Ask A Mortician” videos are funny and really interesting.) She has also just written a book entitled “From Here To Eternity: Travling The World To Find The Good Death”. These two women look like they are cut from the same cloth!

  6. pauline taylor permalink
    December 19, 2017

    Reminds me of when we, as executors, had to clear a friend’s house and I found his collection of bladder stones preserved in a cardboard box !! Another friend, who helped at our shop some years ago, used to tell horrendous stories of the goings on in a path lab where he once worked, it seems that everyone there, including him, had a very macabre sense of humour. Perhaps it is a requirement for the job !

  7. Ian Silverton permalink
    December 20, 2017

    When myself and fellow pupil,at St Barts the Great Church next too to the Hostpital,back in the 1950s,used to go to tea at this very place where our Friend Edwin father was the caretaker, he had rooms there,with his large family,of brothers and sisters,we played with most of the sample bottles,on a weekly tea party in that place,never thought as small boys much of it, our school was called the Gate House School,and was based inside the church cloister,now its tea room, Londons Oldest Church.

  8. Stephen Barker permalink
    December 20, 2017

    Susan. I think you will find that Carla and Caitlin are already connected., Both Tweet on a fairly regular basis and Carla is also a published author on the subject of Death. Details of her books can be found on Amazon.

  9. Stephen Barker permalink
    December 20, 2017

    For those that enjoy collections such as these, there is the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincolns Inn Fields and the Surgeons Hall Museum in Edinburgh whose collection dates from 1699. Both interesting collections and for the history of advances in surgery.

    The Thackery Museum in Leeds deals with aspects of public health and the history of medical advances. It has a wonderful collection of apothecary jars which are worth the entrance fee alone. I also learned the history of Lily the Pinks pills whilst going round the museum which is housed in a former workhouse.

  10. Kitanz permalink
    December 20, 2017

    Oh my, overwhelming, a little scary, but still very interesting. Medicine is a lot better in our days.

  11. Marcia Howard permalink
    December 21, 2017

    Carla was surprisingly normal looking after having read her comments on ambition in para.4. Truly fascinating place, although I don’t think I’d care to spend too much time looking at exhibits. Having said that, I think it must be added to my list of places to visit!

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