This ghoulish exhibition at the Royal College of Surgeons, now 2 centuries old, chronicles the life’s work of John Hunter (1728–93), who elevated surgery from something your barber dabbled in to something a saw-wielding, germ-spreading “scientist” would, ahem, undertake. It’s a macabre scene, crowded with thousands of specimens, including extinct animals, all tastefully presented in a modern, gleaming, two-level hall. Most of your time will be spent squeamishly perusing some 3,000 black-lidded jars of human and animal pathology and anatomy (many originally obtained by grave-robbers, a common practice then), plus a bone-grinding collection of crude surgical instruments that could rattle even the steeliest physician. Check out the cross-section of a chicken’s head that Hunter grafted with a human tooth. Such Frankenstein projects were his stock in trade. In 1783, when a 7 ft.-7 in. man named Charles Byrne heard Hunter wanted to display his corpse after he died, he tried to escape that fate by being buried at sea in a lead-lined coffin; Hunter bribed fisherman to fetch it, and here the poor man’s skeleton remains. Upstairs, as part of a history of surgery, you’ll find an ill-conceived amputation buzz saw. In its first use, it became slick with blood, slipped, and lopped off a nurse’s hand; both patient and nurse were killed by subsequent infection. Ask the good-humored staff questions, or else catch the weekly free guided tour, Wednesdays at 1pm (book ahead if possible).
Note: The Hunterian Museum is closed until 2023 for refurbishment.