Edinburgh has been a focal point for science, arts and humanities for centuries not only in Scotland and Great Britain but also Europe. Located 5 minutes away from Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, the Surgeons’ Hall Museums have a rich, unique and multi-centennial history. Due to the fact that the museums have a substantial number of human remains which are displayed in several sections, visitors are not allowed to take pictures. However, here is a link for the virtual tour and here are some links for key collections of the museums.
In 1505, through a royal charter granted by Scottish King James IV, the Royal College of Surgeons was founded in Edinburgh. The current museums have been opened, as reported at the time, to “all classes of the public” since 1832, making them one of the oldest museums in Scotland and their collection steadily expanded in the 19th century by including the collections of renowned surgeons Sir Charles Bell and John Barclay.
1832 was a year of great significance in British and Scottish History when Parliament introduced the Anatomy Act of 1832 which provided regulations regarding the teaching of anatomy by allowing the use of unclaimed and donated bodies to be used for dissection and scientific purposes. In part this also aimed to stop the activity of grave robbers as Edinburgh was an epicentre of illicit trade in exhumed cadavers with plenty of stories involving body snatchers (also known as resurrectionists) being recorded around the 1800s. By far one of the most infamous stories revolved around the murders of William Burke and William Hare who sold corpses to anatomist Robert Knox.
Today the Surgeons’ Hall museums are owned by The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and contains the Wohl Pathology Museum (where visitors can find one of the largest, and of great significance from a historical point of view, collections of surgical pathology in the world), the History of Surgery Museum (a remarkable collection showing the evolution of surgery throughout the centuries) and the Dental Collection.
The Museums contain many portraits of Scottish pioneers in medicine, anatomy and medical sciences, such as the one of Thomas Keith (1827-1895), which are spread throughout the museums almost acting like watchers and guides to the visitors. At the same time there are numerous interactive points, touchscreens containing information and/or audio and video clips about the specimens or artefacts on display. By far one of the most engaging part of the museums is the mock anatomy theatre where visitors can sit down, watch a video on a large screen and observe a plastic model of a body which has parts lit at different stages lying on the dissecting table, which aims to recreate and tell the story of the public dissection of David Myles in 1702. This was the first recorded public dissection of an executed criminal in Scotland.
The museums contain many preserved specimens showing a wide range of afflictions including tumours, hernias, malformations, plastinated hearts from the late 20th century and even a full skeleton of an individual who suffered from Paget’s disease from the mid-20th century.
The Wohl Pathology Museum is housed on the upper floor of what was known as the Playfair building. It contains sections devoted to cardiothoracic, ophthalmological, oral and vascular surgery. This is a fascinating part of the museums with unique displays giving us glimpses on what the practice of surgery looked like throughout the centuries. There is also a section looking at the history of Obstetrics which has a mid-18th century birthing chair made of wood on display.
The Section on Warfare wounds is a very visual and historical representation of injuries sustained by soldiers throughout history. The examples are numerous and include among others:
Here we can also see many utensils and kits used by military surgeons in the past such as a field-fracture kit from the late 19th century and a surgical instrument case from the early 19th century. Other instruments such as bullet extractors from 1800 are on display. Here visitors can get an idea of the progression and evolution of surgical practice in warfare in different eras ranging from the Napoleonic Wars, to the history of the Edinburgh Surgeons sent to the Crimean War ("The Surgeons in the Crimea 1854-1856" by John A. Shepherd is a very interesting primary source regarding this topic), to the Boer Wars and both World Wars.
Visitors can also find out about other very interesting individual stories of famous generals and their wounds, a particular one involving Baron and General Driessen, badly injured at the Battle of Borodino in 1812. Driessen went to London for treatment from Charles Bell who ultimately decided to amputate his leg on January 7th 1817. Driessen would manage to recover and return to Russia.
In this section there is also a very graphic collection of paintings by Charles Bell of soldiers who sustained grave injuries at the Battle of Corunna from 1809 (link to collection available here). This represents a visualization of military trauma in the early stages of 19th century European History. For more details on this I would recommend the following article.
The royal Surgeons’ Hall Museums are definitely some of the most important cultural and historical landmarks in Edinburgh and Scotland overall. The collections are unique and act as a staunch reminder of how medicine and surgery evolved over the last 200 years. The experience is great as you are able to navigate through sections with ease and have many interactive and informative sections with touchscreens. Personally whenever I visit these collections it feels like I’ve attended a history, anatomy and medicine lecture combined.
Its very central location makes it very accessible and it is definitely in my top 3 places to visit in Edinburgh which I thoroughly recommend to everyone. Prices, offers, opening times and special exhibitions can be checked out on their website: https://museum.rcsed.ac.uk/
Other Contact Details:
Surgeons' Hall Museums
Edinburgh, EH8 9DW
tel: +44(0)131 527 1711/1600
fax: +44(0)131 557 6406
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Vlad Zamfira (Masters of Arts in Archaeology & History and Certificate of Postgraduate research in History at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland) is a historian and podcaster interested mainly in the History of the 16th century Mediterranean with particular focus to Venetian, Ottoman and Spanish relations during the period between 1559-1581 and the Fourth Ottoman-Venetian War of Cyprus. Also with a keen interest in the history of the Eighty & Thirty Years' Wars; Scottish and European History as whole.