Hunterian Museum re-opens after refit

By Agnes Rose

The Hunterian Museum, which has helped in the training and education of unknown thousands of doctors, is re-opening to the public next month following a five-year £4.6m redevelopment.

England’s largest public display of human anatomy, named after the 18th century surgeon and anatomist John Hunter (1728-1793), re-opens free of charge after a five-year closure at the Royal College of Surgeons of England’s headquarters at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in central London. 

The 3,000 objects and specimens on display will not include the skeleton of Charles Byrne, known as the Irish Giant – something which has attracted widespread press interest.

But it will still be available for bona fide medical research into the condition of pituitary acromegaly and gigantism.

The display of more than 2,000 anatomical preparations from Hunter’s original collection, alongside instruments, equipment, models, paintings and archive material, trace the history of surgery from ancient times to the latest robot-assisted operations. 

Dawn Kemp, director of museums and special collections at the college, said: ‘The Hunterian Museum is one of the very few places in the UK where the public are able to see specimens prepared specifically to show human anatomy. 

‘Under the Human Tissue Act, it is only possible to publicly display human remains known to be more than 100 years old. The history of surgery is dramatic and often unsettling with stories of terrible human suffering. 

‘Yet historic medical collections like the Hunterian are also incredibly valuable in giving us a better understanding of our own health and well-being and the complex issues that have arisen in the development of the art and science of surgery.’

The museum has a long association with the college. After John Hunter’s death, the UK Govern­ment bought his collection of 14,000 specimens and preparations and gave it into the safekeeping of the Corporation of Surgeons – later the Royal College of Surgeons of England – for medical education and training. 

An independent Board of Trustees of the Hunterian Collec­tion was established to oversee the collection’s long-term care and use. The new building erected in Lincoln’s Inn Fields to accommodate the museum first opened in May 1813.

The skeleton of Charles Byrne

The best-known human anatomical specimen in Hunter’s collection is the skeleton of Charles Byrne. 

He had an undiagnosed benign adenoma, which caused acromegaly and gigantism. Living with these conditions he grew to be 7’7’’ (2.31m) tall. 

In the last years of his life, he made a living exhibiting himself as the ‘Irish Giant’. 

He died in 1783 and it has been said that to prevent his body being seized by anatomists, he wanted to be buried at sea. Hunter paid Byrne’s friends to handover Byrne’s body. 

Three years later, Hunter displayed Byrne’s skeleton in his Leicester Square museum and part of it is shown in the background of the portrait of Hunter by Sir Joshua Reynolds. 

This portrait will be on public display in the new museum for the first time in over 200 years. 

During the museum’s closure, the Hunterian Collection’s board of trustees discussed the sensitivities and the differing views surrounding the display and retention of Charles Byrne’s skeleton.