‘Curious anatomys’: an extraordinary story of dissection and discovery

Human remains, graphic models and detailed illustrations; the Royal College of Physicians’ (RCP) latest exhibition showcases some of the 494 year old organisation’s rarest and most fascinating exhibits.

In the 17th century, RCP fellow Sir John Finch travelled to the world renowned University of Padua to study medicine and the mysteries of human anatomy. Experts believe that when he returned to England, he brought with him six anatomical tables featuring human veins, nerves and arteries that have been skilfully cut from dissected bodies and varnished on to large wooden panels.

The tables now reside at the RCP and between 27 April and 31 December will be on full public display for the first time in their history.

‘Curious anatomys’: an extraordinary story of dissection and discovery charts the history of public dissections across Europe, the story of the anatomical tables, and the life of their owner, Sir John Finch, known as a ‘lynx with a knife’.

‘Actual veins, arteries and parts of the body’

Academics believe the tables were created as teaching aids for anatomy students, and that the bodies would have come from executed criminals or been supplied by the hospitals of Padua. They are one of only two sets known to have existed and are amongst the oldest surviving human anatomy preparations in Europe.

William Schupbach, iconographic collections librarian at the Wellcome Library, is an expert in 17th-century anatomy. Commenting on the tables, William said:

The extraordinary thing about the tables is that they are the actual veins, arteries and parts of the body. Gunther von Hagens, creator of the Body Worlds exhibitions is well known today, but the RCP’s tables show that somebody had the idea of preserving actual body parts many centuries ago.

Visitors to the exhibition will be able to see the spectacular tables up-close and note their intricate detail. A film with expert commentary on the history of anatomy and the tables will be running throughout the exhibition. It includes an intriguing investigation of the tables by Francis Wells, consultant surgeon at Papworth Hospital, Cambridge. Commenting on the tables, Francis said:

The skills required to complete this level of dissection are considerable and as historical objects they are extremely important and enthralling. There is a definite gruesome parallel with the formaldehyde-preserved sharks of Damien Hirst.

Illustrations, dissections and models

Displayed alongside the tables are some of the earliest anatomy text books published in Europe with beautifully detailed illustrations of the body. The exhibition includes Andreas Vesalius’s 1543 publication, On the fabric of the human body, with famous flayed figures and ‘muscle man’ illustrations.

Visitors will learn about the public dissections in Europe’s early anatomy theatres which took place amid the overwhelming stench of rotting bodies.

Loans from the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons and The Gordon Museum of Pathology include preparations made by the eminent surgeon and anatomist Sir Astley Paston-Cooper and exquisite wax models created by anatomical modeller Joseph Towne.

Sir Richard Thompson, president of the RCP, said:

The anatomical tables are six of the RCP’s most fascinating exhibits. The exhibition gives members of the public the opportunity to see these rare wonders up-close whilst exploring the RCP’s Grade I listed building and wider collection of medical instruments, ceremonial items and portraits.

The RCP has been collecting medical artefacts for nearly half a millennia and the permanent collections include early stethoscopes, tools for purging blood, apothecary jars and much more.

The Grade I listed RCP building, permanent collections and exhibitions are open to the public Monday to Friday, 9am–5pm. Entry is free of charge and guided tours can be arranged for groups of six or more.

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