Category Archives: Anatomy

Who was that one-armed lady pianist?

Amongst our peerless collection of artificial limbs are a number which have been designed or adapted for very specific functions.  For example, the special attachment that allowed a one-armed WW2 bomber pilot to hold the joystick in his plane or the artificial leg terminating in a hollow metal half-sphere that prevented a keen beachcomber from sinking into the sand.

artificial arm

A very special arm (Science Museum)

The arm pictured above is one of the most intriguing examples we have.  Acquired from Queen Mary’s Hospital in Roehampton, it’s a right arm made to fit below the elbow of the wearer, but the most unusual feature are the fingers.  Carved from wood, the middle three digits are disproportionately small while the rigid thumb and little finger are stretched out and covered with small fabric pads.

The catalogue entry for this object explains that it was made for a woman and that the stretched hand allowed her to cover an octave when playing the piano.  The maker of the arm is listed as a Mr Rowden – who was a surgical instrument maker based in Northampton.


The octave-spanning hand (Science Museum)

The other snippet of information we have been passed down is that, apparently, our musician played the piano at the Royal Albert Hall while wearing this arm in 1906.

But who was the one-armed lady pianist?  It would be wonderful to re-connect a name to the appendage!  If true, her public appearance over a century ago seems worthy of reporting at the time.  But despite some research and a number of enquiries, including to the Royal Albert Hall’s archivist, she has so far eluded us.

Any ideas out there?

Don’t try this at home

Everyone, at some point in their lives, will ‘accidently’ ingest something that, well, they really shouldn’t have.  At best, the event might provide an amusing story to tell your friends, at worst the consequences can be serious enough to make the news.

Of course, the deliberate ingestion of foreign bodies into the human body can be symptomatic of serious mental health issues.  A compulsive urge that can result in real physical harm.

Hidden within our medical collections are examples of objects which have found their way into the body, ‘accidently’ or otherwise. Here we shall concentrate on the more benign examples.


A swallowed spoon (Stewart Emmens 2012)

There is something almost reassuring about the adaptability and robustness of the human digestive system as the spoon above caused “no pain or uneasiness” and “passed without discomfort” despite its month long gastric odyssey.  Its smooth contours probably helped.

Tie pin

Glass and metal tie pin (Science Museum)

Rather more worrying is when sharp points and edges are involved.  Fortunately, this tie pin’s disappearance was short-lived but some 94 years ago it prompted an urgent trip to London’s Charing Cross Hospital.


A troublesome coin (Science Museum)

Childhood curiosity is behind several of the swallowed items in our collection.  Like the pin, the halfpenny above caused another anxious hospital visit.  On this occasion, the wannabe piggy bank – a hapless toddler – eventually needed surgery to have the coin removed.

But while most of our subjects at least seem to have been aware that something was amiss, there are exceptions.  Back in 1863, the smoker who almost swallowed this two inch section of hard clay pipe was apparently oblivious to its presence. 

clay pipe

Section of clay pipe (Stewart Emmens 2012)

Finally, a favourite of mine.  It should be noted that not all of our misplaced items took the oral route.  I will spare readers gorier examples, highlighting instead this particular object which suggests that while certain behaviours have changed much over the last century, others have stayed very much the same…

boot button

An Edwardian boot button – a temptation too hard to resist? (Science Museum)

Waxing lyrical

This post was written by Emily Yates, object conservator at Blythe House

As a conservator, it is always fun to work on weird objects, even the gory ones! This beautiful, if macabre, wax model will be on shown in the exhibition Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men at  the Museum of London, running 19 October 2012 until 14 April 2013. To get her looking her best before going on show I had to remove the layers of dust and dirt that had built up over the years and make a few cosmetic repairs.

This anatomical wax model shows the internal organs, the heart is entirely removable, made by Francesco Calenzuoli (1796-1821) ( Science Museum, London )

I gently removed the dirt layers using a soft brush and a detergent solution. Once the dirt was loosened it was carefully blotted away from the surface. As there are some many crevices this was a long, careful process, but was very worthwhile as it made the coloured wax much more bright and vivid. This change in surface brightness can be seen in the images where the intricate features are much more visible. 

The lower left side of the heart has been cleaned, revealing the much brighter red of the heart ( Science Museum, London )

Wax is highly fragile, as she was made in 1818 it was inevitable that some damage had occurred over nearly 200 years. Some fragments of the wax had become detached from the edges; these formed the skin flaps representing the peeled back surface. Areas of the folded back skin running along the edge of the torso have been lost over the years, but it was possible to reattach some of these, shown in the photo.

It was possible to reattach this fragment of skin; you can also see the improved clean surface of the wax ( Science Museum, London )

The veins are made of thread with a wax coating and so are very fragile. Some of these had become dislodged or even crushed. These were also reattached in place, and any flaking wax was consolidated to prevent further damage occurring.

This picture shows damage to the fragile veins and dust build up in the crevices ( Science Museum, London )

If you would like to see the model, she will be on display from tomorrow at the Museum of London along with several other objects  including post mortem kits, dissecting aprons, a piece of brain and even tattoos, all from the Science Museum’s Blythe House store.

Skin, Bones and the ‘Dust of Death’

'Dust of Death'

Container for the 'Dust of Death' collected in 1859 (Stewart Emmens)

These days John Hunter (1728-1793), the celebrated surgeon, anatomist and collector, lies safely buried amongst the great and good in Westminster Abbey – not far from the likes of Ben Jonson, David Livingstone and Robert Stephenson.

This was not always the case. For over 60 years, his body lay in the vaults of London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields church. Only in 1859, when the vaults were being cleared for public health reasons, were Hunter’s remains reinterred in their current prestigious place.

This transfer was down to the actions of one man, Francis (‘Frank’) Trevelyan Buckland – surgeon, natural historian, fellow collector and general eccentric. Son of William, a leading naturalist and the Dean of Westminster, Frank was a larger than life character whose approach to recovering Hunter’s body was typical. With the help of a few hired hands, he rolled up his sleeves and set to work himself.

Finding Hunter amongst the hundreds of coffins crammed in the vault took two weeks, at the beginning of which even the strong-stomached Buckland had a wobble. His diary for the first day of the search reads, “The stink awful; rather faint towards the end of the business”. But he knuckled down and, ever the collector, couldn’t resist nabbing a few souvenirs while he was there. 

More 'Dust of Death'

More 'Dust of Death' collected by Frank in 1859 (Stewart Emmens)

Alongside more “Dust of Death” sweepings from the church vault – a second example of which is shown above – Buckland retained some more solid remnants, such as these unusual skull fragments. 

Skull fragments

Skull fragments with "remarkable crystals" (Stewart Emmens)

But alongside the nameless human detritus, he was clearly intrigued by encounters with known individuals. Twins Robert and Daniel Perreau, infamous gentlemen criminals hanged in 1776, appear to have held a particular fascination.

Human skin

Skin from a hanged man (Stewart Emmens)

Not content with the skin from the neck of one brother, on which he could still see the marks of the rope, Buckland also retrieved several neck vertebrae – described by another of his hand-written notes.

Neck vertebrae

Neck bones... no longer connected (Stewart Emmens)

Surprisingly, such ad hoc ‘body-snatching’ was not so out of the ordinary as there is evidence of other prominent figures acquiring similarly grisly relics when presented with the opportunity. And, given that Buckland only found Hunter’s remains in the second last of the 3,260 coffins in the vault, perhaps he felt entitled to some grisly mementoes from a truly grisly task.

A tale of two brothers

Following the release of The King’s Speech with Colin Firth, it inspired me to look into the two brothers of the film, Edward VIII and George VI using the Science Museum’s collections as my pool of reference. I was pleasantly surprised with the things I found.

X-ray of Edward VIII's left hand, 1931 (2004-264, Science Museum, London)

Following a visit to an orthopaedic hospital in Stoke-on-Trent, the then future Edward VIII, had his hand x-rayed. It was a way of showing off a technology that by the 1930s was in every hospital in Britain. It was also a souvenir of his visit to the hospital maybe, to open a new wing or ward.

Taking X-rays of royalty for fun rather than medical purposes is one thing but can you imagine the pressure of operating on the reigning monarch? That’s precisely what Clement Price-Thomas from the Westminster Hospital was called to do for George VI on 23 September 1951 at Buckingham Palace.

George VI's operating table (1985-410/1, Science Museum, London)

The table was loaned to the Palace for the operation and afterwards went back into general use, with patients having no idea who they had shared an operating table with.

Edward VIII was also a donor to the Science Museum’s collections, donating a number of royal carriages in 1936.

Bath chair owned by Queen Victoria, 1893 (1936-599, © Science Museum / Science & Society)

This example was used by Queen Victoria in her advanced years. Unlike normal bath chairs, this example was pulled by a pony, led by a footman. If you want to see this chair in the flesh, it is currently on display at the National Trust Carriage Collection in Arlington Court.

Snippets of the two brothers’ lives can be seen on Science and Society Prints including their everyday lives, coronations and funerals.

Not for the squeamish….

I often get asked what skills you need to be a curator. As a medical curator, the one I’ve found most useful is having a strong stomach.

Unsurprisingly, we have large amounts of blood-related items in the collections including bleeding bowls, lancets, leech jars, cupping sets and even mechanical leeches.

Lancets with a case showing a bloodletting scene 1750-1850 (A647881, Science Museum, London)

Blood was let from patients to restore their the balance of their humours. For instance, a fever was a sign of too much hot blood running through the body so to return equilibrium, blood was let from a vein into a bleeding bowl.

It required some skill to hit the right spot and to know when enough was enough. Most would have been barber-surgeons or physicians and often advertised their wares in particularly literal fashion.

Barber surgeon's shop sign, England, 1680-1830 (A631340, Science Museum, London)

But it’s not just people on dry land that require treatment. One of the more amazing items is a blood letter’s document wallet.

Richard Phillips' document wallet, England (A633734, Science Museum, London)

The owner of the wallet, Richard Phillips was on board HMS Eclipse in 1813 and probably performed cupping or bleeding to the sailors on board – undoubtedly a messy procedure.

Bloodletting was not only confined to humans – animals too were bled.  The tools are only slightly different – bloodsticks are a used to tap a fleam into the jugular vein of an animal.

Group of bloodsticks, 1750-1850 (Science Museum, London)

The work of the bloodletter or barber surgeon seem far distant in our history but there is one relic of their work that survives - a barber’s red and white pole.  The colours represent the bandages: clean and bloodstained.

They are entwined around a pole which is reminiscent of the staff grasped by those about to be bled from the arm. Fortunately barbers don’t perform the same jobs now….

Bring out your dead

With the recent release of Burke and Hare, it got me thinking about bodysnatching. 

Learning anatomy, then and now, meant practicing dissections on cadavers or watching a dissection in an anatomy theatre. Bodies were often in short supply as dissection was taboo for social, cultural and religious reasons. The only bodies that were legally available were executed criminals. 

Anatomy theatre, Cambridge, 1815 (1982-575, Science Museum, London)

Stealing a body was not a criminal offence as technically, the body could not be owned by anyone. If clothes or jewellery were taken, well, that’s a different story and murdering people, quite another.

Burke and Hare weren’t the only murdering body snatchers or ‘resurrectionists’. Bishop and Thomas were another infamous duo.

Once convicted, bodysnatchers who murdered their victims would be executed in front of a baying crowd. They shared the fates of their victims – they were dissected by anatomy teachers for their students. Later they would be publicly exhibited, as a warning to others.

Burke and Hare had differing fates. William Burke was executed in 1829 and hidden in our collection is what is reported to be a piece of his brain.

Piece of Burke's brain (A667469, Science Museum, London)

The only thing that we know is that it was bought at auction by Henry Wellcome in 1925, the remainder of his body is at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. Hare disappeared into obscurity. 

Some people took drastic measures to prevent their bodies being stolen. One such device was a mortsafe – a cast iron protective layer. 

Iron mortsafe 1800s (A600162 Pt1, Science Museum, London)

Those with limited means resorted to watching graves and watching over the body until it decayed enough to be of no use to the anatomists. 

For more details have a read of Ruth Richardson’s Death, Dissection and the Destitute.

Collecting the uncollectable?

There are some stories you read in the press that you immediately react to as a curator. For me recently it was reading about the first UK Service of Dedication for lives lost to eating disorders that took place at Southwark Cathedral.

Sensing an acquisition in sight, I contacted b-eat - a UK charity for people with eating disorders – to get hold of a copy of the Order of Service.

Recent acquisition. Order of Service from Southwark Cathedral dedicated to lives lost to eating disorders (Credit: Science Museum).

Eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa are such prevalent mental health problems – affecting 1.6 million people in the UK alone – yet such experiences are barely documented through material culture at all.

Part of the problem is that there might not be any objects to collect. Can we document mental health experiences (depression for example) when they seemingly aren’t embodied in objects or expressed through stuff?

Why collect objects to represent such illnesses anyway?

With an anthropological hat on, documenting experiences and reactions to eating disorders reveals a lot about us as a society –  the significance of food and health, perceptions of beauty, and how our bodies respond to stress.

Historically, how societies have treated self-starvation is fascinating. Apollonia Schreier, a German woman, was credited with almost mystical abilities after refusing food for 11 months.

Engraving of Apollonia Schreier by Paullus Lentillus after her alleged fast of 11 months, at Galz, near Berne, 1604. (Source: Wellcome Library)

Of course we can’t treat such experiences as ‘Anorexia’ – the condition didn’t medically exist until the late nineteenth century. But by documenting historical and contemporary experiences through material culture, we can perhaps understand a little better why we treat illnesses today as we do.

A relatively recent mental health phenomenon? As this Lancet case report shows, doctors began to diagnose cases of self-starvation as Anorexia Nervosa towards the end of the nineteenth century. (Source: Wellcome Library)

Perhaps not all human experiences can be told through objects. Yet, I’d argue that material culture has a unique ability to connect you to stories and experiences even at a glance – so I think it’s worth a bit of lateral thinking.

Anyway, here’s a few other objects we could collect on the topic: size zero clothing, the personal effects of an individual who’s experienced an eating disorder (perhaps their weighing scale or diary for instance), self-help manuals, health education material etc. Other thoughts, suggestions or insights most welcome.

A rogues gallery

My colleague Ali’s recent post focussed on the often gruesome relics of some of the great men of science. In between Galileo’s finger and Einstein’s brain, I was struck by the ghostly serenity of Newton’s death mask. Creating such portraits of eminent people – either in life or death – was not uncommon in the days before photography.

But these masks found a new purpose during the 19th century in the pseudoscience of phrenology. What better tools to back up its claims and to teach its secrets, than assembled sets of plaster heads of the great, the good…..and the not so good. So here, as a counterpoint to Ali’s great men, are some of the rogues from such collections.

Pierre Lacenaire

Rogue number one (Science Museum)

Would you trust this man? Thought not. This is Pierre Lacenaire, a notorious French double murderer executed in 1836. The exploits of this debonair part-time poet and author captivated many in the artistic community and inspired Dostoevsky to write Crime and Punishment.

James Bloomfield Rush

Rogue number two (Science Museum)

Our second rogue is James Bloomfield Rush, aka the “Killer in the Fog”. A favourite subject of phrenologists, as well as 19th century balladeers, Rush was hanged for another double murder, in front of a large and appreciative crowd in Norwich in 1848.

William Dodd

Rogue number three (Science Museum)

This chap almost has something of Newton’s serenity about him. Indeed, William Dodd was both a clergyman and an aspiring literary figure. Unfortunately, an extravagant lifestyle led him astray and he was convicted of forgery. Despite a popular campaign to save him, he too went to the gallows.    

Franz Joseph Gall

Rogue number four? (Science Museum)

And finally. Who’s this handsome devil. Warts and all. Another murderer perhaps? Actually, this is Franz Joseph Gall, anatomist, physiologist and the founder of a technique he called cranioscopy, which was later renamed by his followers as… phrenology.  

Hmmm… wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley.

The old is new again

I’m just back from a conference in Dresden. The Deutsches Hygiene-Museum, home to the wonderful transparent man (and woman), hosted a conference looking at wax moulages.

Moulages are based on casts taken directly from patients, which are then moulded in wax to present case studies of particular diseases, especially dermatological conditions. Each one has its own medical and cultural story to tell, at once a medical specimen, an individual’s history as a patient, and cultural artefact.


These examples are from our collection, and were part of a touring anatomical show in the 1920s.  These ‘before and after’ waxes show the effects of Salvarsan, the ‘magic bullet’ which was the first effective treatment for syphilis.

One of the great things about the conference was the sense that all kinds of people are getting interested in moulages again. The Charité Museum in Berlin is working on a project documenting moulage collections, while the Hôpital St Louis has its collections online. But also at the conference were people reviving the craft skills and not only preserving but making new moulages. Dermatologists use them to teach students about once common diseases which are now rare and you can even buy bleeding moulages for casualty simulations. Or perhaps Hallowe’en…

It’s great to see the value of items that for while looks like they might be considered as historical ‘curiosities’ being recognised again.