Think Piece: I’m not a medic, can I enjoy medical museums?

My fascination with medical museums started with a college trip to the Hunterian Museum in London. The trip was a whistle-stop tour of as many science museums as possible in one day ending with a long coach ride home, and I hadn’t given much thought to the Hunterian at all. However, I do remember entering the museum with some trepidation. I had spent a lot of time in hospitals when I was young, and I wondered how I would react to a place dedicated not only to medicine but to the suffering that medicine aims to cure. My worries were unnecessary, I would fall in love with the place.

I was drawn in by the pale specimens resting in their jars. At some angles, the curvature of the glass had a magnifying effect and I found myself peering even closer, playing with the distortion, scrolling the enhanced image for some hidden clue about what made this organ special and how it affected or ended the life of whoever owned it. Far removed from the pain and heightened emotion I had witnessed in hospitals, laid out in front of me were all the secrets of the body. I was struck by the notion that we are all, quite literally, walking contradictions. The human body is an oxymoron; strong and resilient yet so fragile. We can endure terrible trauma and still survive, but we are all just one injury or illness away from the end. One person may survive being hit by lightning, another may be carried off by the winter flu. An individual may seem the perfect model of health, but below a deadly disease may be patiently biding its time until it makes its presence known. The only time I faltered was when I saw a well-developed foetus still snug in the womb. I looked around at my peers and teachers animatedly discussing the exhibit and then back at the specimen. I thought to myself that it was ironic that a foetus who never opened its eyes, preserved and well cared for, would probably physically outlast those of us that got to live. Pulvis et umbra sumus. We are dust and shadows.

I held that experience very close to my heart and thought of it often. I also went on a tour of the travelling Bodies Revealed exhibit. During the trip, I enjoyed it. A moment that stands out in my memory is when I looked at a brain tumour and thought it looked quite small- only to look across to the plaque and read that it was fatal. On reflection, I didn’t enjoy Bodies Revealed as much as I enjoyed the Hunterian. I quickly forgot about it, until I came across a news story that the company that treated the specimens had been accused of using the bodies of political prisoners. Article after article blasted the company, or raised ethical issues that I hadn’t previously considered, and I felt sickened with my enthusiasm for all things medical.

Most people are familiar with medicine’s graverobbing past, Resurrectionists would stalk the graveyards to relieve coffins of their occupants and sell them to medical schools. Fewer people are aware that an allotted number of executed criminals were given to medical schools each year by the Parliament. This may sound purely pragmatic as academics were desperate for cadavers for students to examine, and further study of anatomy would undoubtedly lead to new discovery and developments, but there was an unsavoury punitive element to the policy. The Murder Act 1751 drips with contempt when it says, ‘in no case whatsoever the body of any murderer shall be suffered to be buried; unless after such body have been dissected and anatomized.’ In a time when it was widely believed a body must remain intact to be resurrected on Judgement Day, the act took retributive justice an extra step by robbing the criminal of their chance at eternal life. It was also an act of humiliation designed as a deterrent to would-be criminals. In 1829, Burke (of Burke and Hare infamy) was hanged and publicly dissected. This was a poetic punishment for a man who killed innocent people to sell their bodies to anatomists. His skeleton resides at the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School and a book said to be made from his skin is on display at the Surgeon’s Hall.

The fear of being robbed from one’s grave led to the installation of watchtowers and mortsafes in graveyards, but for those who lived with a disability or visible illness the fear of being anatomized was more than just the era’s zeitgeist but a real threat. Alexis St. Martin, an American, developed a fistula after being shot in the abdomen as a teenager. For a decade of his life, he was experimented on by ‘Father of gastric physiology’ William Beaumont, who observed the effects of digestion by inserting pieces of food tied on to silk string into the fistula and removing it after different time intervals. When St. Martin died, his family were so concerned his body would be stolen for experimentation that they left St. Martin’s corpse out in the sun for days before burial to encourage decomposition.

Charles Byrne, whose skeleton resides at the Hunterian, also went to great lengths to attempt to avoid his fate. Byrne had acromegaly, a hormonal disorder caused by the pituitary gland producing too much growth hormone. His large size gave him the moniker of “The Irish Giant” and he made his living from being a human attraction. When his family attempted to bury him at sea in accordance with his wishes, Hunter bribed an undertaker in Margate to swap the body for weights. His family went ahead with the sea burial believing Byrne to still be in his lead coffin. In 2011, an article by Dr Len Doyle and Dr Thomas Muinzer about Byrne’s body was published in the British Medical Journal. The article weighs up the benefits of using Byrne’s body for research against the ethical issue of defying Byrne’s behest. Doyle and Muinzer draw parallels to the organ donation debate; those that die do not need their organs and organ donation, when given to a viable candidate, increases longevity and quality of life. However, to take organs against the donor’s wishes strips that person of their agency and their rights over their own body. The article also points out that even if Byrne’s body has a scientific value, that doesn’t mean his skeleton needs to be displayed as an exhibit. The article led to public pressure being applied on the Royal College of Surgeons to remove Byrne’s body. In 2017, the college stated that they had no plans to remove Byrne.

The question of whether it ethical or right to display these specimens is not easy to answer. The fact that Byrne was well known within his lifetime and made his wishes clear makes him a great cases study for examining the ethics of exhibiting human remains. However, a lot of human remains in museums have murky or anonymous providence and any opinion the person may have had on the topic is unknown. To deprive medical museums, which often are associated with Royal Colleges and medical schools, teaching aids on the idea that specimens might have objected seems extreme. Museums now make concerted efforts to treat human remains with the utmost care and consideration. There are strict legal and ethical guidelines that must be adhered to when dealing with human remains as detailed in “Guidance for the Care of Human Remains.” This guide, which can be found online, acknowledges how human remains have been used in the past and aims to provide a future for those remains which is culturally and religiously sensitive. There are even procedures in place for de-accessioning of remains and for returning remains to those who have a rightful claim to them.

I have made the conscious decision to be discerning about which exhibits I choose to see. I still enjoy medical museums and their public events, because I know those that host them have a deep respect for both their subject and the museum exhibits. I am not going to be a medical professional and so the knowledge I gain from these museums will never practically help anyone. However, these museums are important to the public in general. It is only recently that knowledge of the inner workings of the body has been accessible to the layman, and if I was bold I would argue this knowledge is still not accessible enough. With public health campaign after public health campaign encouraging people to take ownership of their own health, it’s clear there is a need for more in-depth education surrounding health, illness and our bodies. A little trip to a medical museum might be just what the doctor ordered.