One of the world’s tallest ever men, Charles Byrne, 8 foot 2 inches tall and known as the Irish giant had wished to be buried at sea when he died aged 22 in 1783. An eminent surgeon, however, had other ideas and bought his body for his collection. We gazed upon the giant’s colossal skeleton, placed next to one of the smallest human’s remains at the awesome Hunterian museum at Britain’s royal college of surgeons in Lincoln’s inn fields, London.
John Hunter, born in Long Calderwood, Scotland in 1728, was one of those persons of the enlightenment who did so much to help better humanity in both ideas and practical living – in this case medical science. He did much to progress knowledge in venereal diseases, the lymphatic system, inflammation and the growth of bones and teeth.
Hunter and Byrne were the subjects a novel by Hilary Mantel (one of my favourite, and certainly one of Britain’s major contemporary authors – she’s already won the Booker price twice, her “Wolf Hall” is scoring a major success on world TV and the last part of her trilogy on the rise of Thomas Cromwell is due out this year). It’s “The giant O’Brien” in which the shadier sides of John Hunter, including suspicions of dubious body-snatching practises and controlled death of pregnant women for medical dissection, are hinted at.
To come to a more pleasant side of life I was pleased to note that after her husband’s death Mrs Hunter, a poet of no mean reputation in her time, formed a friendship (some say a love match) with Joseph Haydn during one of his famous trips arranged by Salomon to London who set several of her verses to music including this one:
My mother bids me bind my hair
With bands of rosy hue,
Tie up my sleeves with ribbons rare,
And lace my bodice blue.
Hunter was an inveterate collector and although, unfortunately, much of his huge collection was destroyed when the building housing it was bombed in WWII, enough remains to fascinate, tease or even squirm.
The museum, which has been beautifully presented since my last visit there some years ago, has been brought up to date with many new exhibits. Two particularly fascinated me. One was on the rapid evolution of plastic surgery. Hunter was a pioneer in the treatment of war wounds but it required the great war to develop ways of treating the horrific wounds more powerful weapons inflicted. Unpleasant photographs of facial injuries showed the progress from initial wearing of face masks to sophisticated cranial reconstructions and skin grafts. Happy marriage pictures showed that many patients were now able to lead near normal lives and attract spouses.
This led me to realise that the too often unsung heroes of war are the medical teams who bravely step into the field to try to save the lives of those who are victims of man’s paramount stupidity to man.
Four videos showed fascinating insights into today’s surgical techniques. I was particularly taken by the one on brain surgery to remove a tumour. The precision of handling a medical version of a Black and Decker to drill holes through the skull to remove pressure, and the subsequent intervention, made engrossing watching.
This is a museum I would recommend to anyone even if they do not intend to make a career as brain surgeons. Indeed, during our visit, a group of art students from nearby st Martin’s school of art, under the guidance of their teacher, were engaged in sketching some of the most unusual formaldehyde exhibits of freaks from the human and animal world. Damien Hirst eat your heart out…