A Renaissance art: dissecting at Padua
The RCP’s six anatomical tables were created in the 1650s at the University of Padua, Italy. Padua was one of the leading academic centres in Europe, particularly in the field of anatomy.
Padua’s famous anatomy theatre is the oldest surviving theatre in Europe. From 1594, students from across the continent watched dissections in the steeply-tiered theatre. Bodies came from executed criminals and were also supplied by Padua’s San Francesco hospital, which adjoined the university.
Anatomical tables were probably created as teaching aids and as experiments in the preservation of human tissue. But their widespread use would have been limited by the time and extraordinary skill involved in their production.
We do not know exactly how the RCP’s tables were made, but more is known about a second set of four tables, bought by the diarist John Evelyn (1620–1706) and now owned by the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, London.
According to Evelyn, his tables were dissected by Giovanni Leoni at the University of Padua in 1646. Having extracted ‘the veins and other vessels which contain the blood, spirits, etc., out of the humane bodys..., [he] begun to distend and apply them on tables according to their natural proportion and situation, as an Improvement which might be of Use for Anatomy.’
The RCP and Evelyn tables are the only sets known to have existed.
The hidden tables: 1700–today
The RCP’s anatomical tables were owned by the Earl of Winchilsea and Nottingham from the late 17th century, and kept at their country house in Burley-on-the-Hill, Rutland.
A 1772 house inventory records the tables’ location in the library in ‘a press containing some curious anatomys’. A press was a cupboard which may have had drawers or shelves to store the tables flat or upright.
John Evelyn presented his set of tables to the Royal Society for scientific study in 1667. In contrast, Burley’s tables were viewed only by house guests and otherwise remained in darkness for over 100 years.
A gift to the RCP
On 24 March 1823, George Finch, Earl of Winchilsea and Nottingham and founder of the Marylebone Cricket Club, wrote to the RCP: 'Sir, I have in my possession some anatomical preparations which belonged to the late Dr. Harvey, which I have great pleasure in offering to the College of Physicians… these specimens of his scientific researches can be nowhere so well placed as in the hands of that learned body'.
President Sir Henry Halford replied the same day: 'My Lord, I am desired by the Fellows... to express their thanks in the strongest terms for one of the most gratifying and valuable presents which the College has ever received'.
The tables were again placed in dark library recesses, at the RCP’s headquarters in Pall Mall East and later Regent’s Park, where visitors frequently failed to notice them.
Sir, I have in my possession some anatomical preparations which belonged to the late Dr. Harvey, which I have great pleasure in offering to the College of Physicians… these specimens of his scientific researches can be nowhere so well placed as in the hands of that learned body.'
George Finch, Earl of Winchilsea and Nottingham, 1823
The RCP’s tables were known as the Tabulae Harveianae or ‘Harvey’s tables’.
The Earl of Winchilsea and Nottingham presented the tables to the RCP as having belonged to his famous ancestor, the eminent physician William Harvey FRCP (1578–1657).
This attribution remained unquestioned for nearly a hundred years, but Harvey did not mention the tables in his writing. It is now thought to be unlikely that he would not have bequeathed such valuable objects to RCP along with his library and museum.
Twentieth-century research reveals that the Earl of Winchilsea and Nottingham’s ancestor Sir John Finch (1626–82) was more likely to be the owner of the tables. Finch was known to his descendants as a diplomat, not for his earlier career as a professor of anatomy, hence the family’s assumption that the tables belonged to their more famous medical ancestor.
‘A lynx with the knife’: Sir John Finch
John Finch (1626–82) was a scientist, traveller and later ambassador to the Ottoman court in Constantinople. He is now considered to be the original owner of the anatomical tables.
Finch came from a successful political family – his father was speaker of the House of Commons and his brother Lord Chancellor. Whilst studying at Christ's College, Cambridge, Finch met Sir Thomas Baines FRCP (1622–80) and the two men become lifelong companions. Known as ‘the doctors’ to their friends, Finch and Baines had a personal and professional partnership described by Finch as ‘a beautiful and unbroken marriage of souls’.
Finch and Baines left England in 1651 to study medicine at the University of Padua and remained in Italy for over 20 years. Finch became renowned for his skills in dissection and later became professor of anatomy at the University of Pisa.
A lynx with a knife
you show that to cut man up with skill is no less
a work of divine art than to make him in the beginning.
Epigram to Sir John Finch, 1660s
There is evidence that Finch owned anatomical tables. In 1665 Padua student Edward Browne, wrote: ‘Sir John Finch … hath tables of the veines, nerves, and arteries, five times more exact then are described by any author.’ Finch himself described ‘our own tavole’ (tables) as superior to other methods of human tissue preservation.
After Finch’s death his collections were taken to Burley-on-the-Hill, Rutland – the country estate of his nephew, Daniel, Earl of Winchilsea and Nottingham.
The 'Curious anatomys' exhibition that featured the tables, won first prize as the best small exhibition on the history of science and medicine, 2012, awarded by the British Society for the History of Science.