Curious anatomy's: an extraordinary story of dissection and discovery

Human remains, graphic models and detailed illustrations - this exhibition showcased some of the RCP’s rarest and most fascinating exhibits.

Curious anatomy's: an extraordinary story of dissection and discovery

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 had been skilfully cut from dissected bodies and varnished on to large wooden panels. ‘Curious anatomys’: an extraordinary story of dissection and discovery documented 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’.

Model of Padua anatomy theatre
Padua anatomy theatre (c) Wellcome Trust.
Painting of Sir John Finch
Sir John Finch (c) Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

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.

Displayed alongside the tables were 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, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, with famous flayed figures and ‘muscle man’ illustrations.

Visitors learnt about 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 included preparations made by the eminent surgeon and anatomist Sir Astley Paston-Cooper and exquisite wax models created by anatomical modeller Joseph Towne.

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.