Anatomy Museums: Past, Present and Future – Barts Pathology Museum


As part of my visit to Barts Pathology Museum, I attended a talk by Professor Will Ayliffe from Gresham College on the history, purpose and present of pathology museums. He explained that the purpose of such museums has changed over time. Initially, resperentations of anatomy used to be common sights, with relics, bones and wax models widely visible in churches and beyond. These days, anatomy is often viewed with suspicion – especially after the Alder Hey scandal of a few years ago. In northern Europe particularly, we don’t habitually see the dead: there is no culture of relics, and no open caskets. Museums like this have been used for comparative anatomy, criminology and phrenology.

Dissection has been viewed with suspicion from classical times right through to medieval times. Galen dissected apes, but human dissection was usually used as a punishment; autopsies were only allowed if foul play was suspected. The papal bull of Pope Sixtus IV of 1482 allowed unclaimed corpses and executed criminals to be dissected. Da Vinci and Vesalius increased knowledge of anatomy, while William Harvey’s work discovered more about the circulation of the blood. One purpose of dissection was to desensitise the doctor, so they could be clinically detached when working on “real” patients.

By the mid-eighteenth century, criminals sentenced to death could also be sentenced to dissection. There was an insufficient supply of bodies – only 8% of those hanged were killed for murder, which meant that they could potentially be dissected – and yet there were more and more medical students who would need them. This was despite the difficult and dangerous nature of the work: Charles Darwin’s nephew died the day after cutting a finger and dissecting a child. The need for bodies led to the growth of the “Resurrection Men”, who dug up bodies from cemeteries and sold them to the surgeons. Dissection was therefore often viewed with suspicion: the dissection at Bart’s of the hanged murderer of the then Prime Minister in 1812 was accompanied by screaming crowds threatening to murder the dissectors. The skull of this man, Bellingham, is still kept in this museum.

Nowadays, the specimens in this museum are fairly old, but we can still learn from them, and the museum is still used by medical students today.

Barts Pathology Museum

Barts Museum of Pathology

Perhaps Barts Pathology Museum isn’t the best place for someone as squeamish as me to go. That said, the historical nature of the collections was enough of a draw for me. Originally opened in 1879, the museum consists of pathological specimens illustrating the incredible range of diseases that flesh is heir to. Following years of neglect, it’s only recently that the museum has received a grant to renovate the collection; it is used by students at St Bartholomew’s Hospital during the day so is currently only open for special events, such as talks: keep an eye on the website for details of future events. These events take place out of hours, as students at the hospital use the museum as a teaching aid during the day.

Barts Museum of Pathology

The building housing the museum is not particularly impressive, but the museum itself certainly is. Bones, organs and body parts, in various stages of decay, line the walls, with labels and information leaflets explaining what condition affected them. Most specimens come from the nineteenth century, as do the beautifully detailed drawings of individuals, and sometimes their body parts, that are dotted about the room. The most memorable, for me, was a picture of a sixteen-year-old girl with congenital syphilis.

Barts Museum of Pathology

I must admit that I felt a bit squeamish looking at many of the specimens, the organs more so than the bones. My favourite part, with which I was completely fascinated, was the section containing objects that have been removed from inside bodies. These included numerous needles and other foreign objects, such as a WW2 shell repeatedly inserted by one man in order to sort out his piles. My favourite story involved a six-inch electric torch, “removed from the rectum of an eccentric and uncouth-looking man, aged 68, who stated that he had been assaulted by two drunken Irishmen who had pushed some object into his rectum.”

Barts Museum of Pathology

Getting to the museum can be tricky as it’s not easy to find. Enter the grounds of Barts Hospital. Ignore the signs warning you that this is a private area, and only staff are allowed: so long as you’re here for an event, you’re fine. Follow the signs to the Robin Brook Centre and take the lift to the third floor.


Address: 3rd Floor, Robin Brook Centre, West Smithfield, London, EC1A 7BE


Opening Hours: Special events only

Prices: Dependent on event