Have you seen them? The Curious Case of Medical Marvels

Body parts and the strangeness of the human anatomy have fascinated people for centuries. And they have been displayed and collected for some time. Here, Rebecca Anne Lush takes a look at how displays of ‘medical marvels’ have progressed though the ages…

Have you seen them? The Curious Case of Medical Marvels

An old scene from the Hunterian Museum in London.

With contents to both fascinate and repulse it is no wonder medical museums continue to entice visitors. Gunther von Hagen’s Body Worlds has attracted thousands of visitors worldwide since its first exhibition in Tokyo in 1995. Today, there are nine exhibitions on display across the world. With a further four planned in the near future, it appears as though this museum has sustained the public’s interest. According to their mission statement, they endeavor to teach the public the ins and outs of anatomy. Body Worlds is not alone. The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia and the Hunterian and Wellcome Museums in London also continue to engage the public with their morbid and fascinating specimens.

The history of medical museums is incredibly rich, filled with mystery and mayhem, curiosity and control. In the Victorian era especially, they came to represent a conflict between the professional and the public. No longer could an individual pay a small fee to sit in on an autopsy and leave with a qualification. As the Victorian era progressed, pathology and anatomy schools both professionalized and specialized. Their conflict with the public realm is a curious case indeed.


Before the nineteenth-century

Body parts have been displayed for centuries serving multiple purposes. It can be argued that medieval churches displaying relics and reliquaries were amongst some of the earliest in the Western world.

The collection and display of body parts became a more secular practice during the Renaissance. So called Cabinets of Curiosities allowed avid collectors to organize their specimens and exhibit them to the public. Such cabinets could include human rarities to please and entertain visiting crowds.

It was not until the seventeenth-century, however, that anatomical specimens were more carefully collected, labeled, and stored in permanent institutions. Many anatomy teachers during this period held private collections to increase their credibility. Two very famous brothers, William and John Hunter, collected en masse anatomical specimens later donated to the Royal College of Surgeons. The seventeenth-century was also a time for commercial anatomical displays, such as freak shows and travelling exhibitions of human oddities.


Dr Kahn’s Anatomical Museum

Such early examples were the foundations for Victorian public and professional medical museums. No public medical museum was more influential than Dr Kahn’s Anatomical Museum. Joseph Kahn, a self-professed medical doctor, moved from Alsace, Germany to London opening his anatomical museum in London, 1851. Initially entry was restricted to males who could afford the fee of two shillings. After two months, however, women were allowed to step inside during specific viewing times. Eight years later, the admission price halved to one shilling attracting larger crowds and more inquisitive minds.

On entering the exhibition space, visitors encountered an anatomical wax Venus, the organs of which could be removed. The rest of the museum consisted of wax models, specimens held in jars, and special “doctors-only” rooms. Medical doctors frequented Dr Kahn’s until its closure in 1864.


Have you seen them? The Curious Case of Medical Marvels

Dr. Kahn.

Professional Museums

Developing alongside these public spectacles were the more professional museums, belonging to hospitals, pathology societies, private schools, universities and Royal Colleges.

More formal institutions collected specimens to aid in medical education. Acquiring both abnormal and normal specimens increased levels of anatomical knowledge and encouraged anatomy to transform into a professional activity that aimed to improve standards of health. Although some were open to the public, the majority were kept under lock and key.



In 1857 the Obscene Publications Act prevented any ‘obscene’ anatomy to be displayed in a public setting. Dr Kahn’s museum was deemed immoral under this act resulting in its later closure. Other public anatomy museums continued to operate until the mid-1870s.

Both professional and public museums were striving to be centers of education. At first, the professionals admired Dr Kahn’s museum, especially the rooms dedicated to their study. Not only were early opinions favorable, but there is also evidence to suggest there were close relationships. Robert Abercrombie, for example, affiliated himself with the Strand Museum in London, establishing a consultation room next to the museum. Visitors were able to not only visit the museum, but also receive medical care on site.

As the Victorian era progressed, and as anatomy became specialized, these public museums were regarded inappropriate to disseminate such medical information. Ongoing legal and social battles ensured that the professional schools of anatomy and pathology alone were the stakeholders to the industry. It was a conflict of words with professional museums writing at length about their distrust and disgust in their medical journals.



It is quite interesting to see another shift occurring in the past few decades. Today, even the more professional museums from the Victorian era are now open to the wider public. No longer is all medical information guarded by the elite and trained, but it can be accessible to anyone who wants to learn. Accompanying this is the fact that public medical museums displaying wax models are again appearing on the medical landscape. The curious case of medical marvels is a comment on how medical museums have been developed and transformed in order to meet the human desire for knowledge.  


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