December 06, 2008

Anatomy Museums

In mid-Victorian Britain there was a craze for anatomy museums- these museums were eventually by 1870 threatened with prosecution under the obscene publications act (1857) and mostly died away. For a while though, Anatomy Museums were places where the learned and scholarly met the populace in an atmosphere of equality- some Victorians saw them as a solution to the public health needs of the time, others campaigned for them to receive a tax rebate from the Treasury and the most popular museums were visited by over 2000 people a week. Dr. A. W. Bates, in Medical History, has just written an article examining the importance of the Museums- why they thrived and why eventually they fell. His arguments are worth considering when we think about the way in which modern medicine arrived at its current professionalised status.

The anatomy museum was the response to a real need. By the late eighteenth century, the dissection of bodies was increasingly difficult to maintain- it was hard to find specimens without breaking the law. As the anatomist Frederick Knox commented 'without the museums, the profession of anatomy would be in the state of a man without a language'. As the eighteenth century opened it became accepted that medical men needed some sort of a training and that that must include knowledge of anatomy. Popular anatomist teachers then arose to fulfill the need- to give pupils training in the arts of anatomy. Frequently what they did was maintain collections of anatomical models which they would demonstrate their arguments with. For people who did not wish to attend a dissection, the prospect of an anatomical model gave them a less sanguine approach to medical training. As the eighteenth century went on more and more of these collections became open to the public- between the early eighteenth century and 1800 Bates estimates that 39 establishments were opened in London. Their primary focus was on supporting the anatomical lecturer- but as the nineteenth century moved on, they became increasingly popular as attractions in their own right.

What they contained were models of the human being. Often these models were based on classical figures- a reclining Venus, a Samson, an Adonis- who could be carefully abstracted from the society of the day. There was a proffusion in particular of female models- partly this was for reasons of a rising interest in obstetrics: one might see in Joseph Kahn's museum, foetuses from the age of two weeks to birth. Anatomy advocates argued that popular knowledge of the subject fortified a more general religious sensibility within society: the knowledge of the mechanism induced in their thinking a recognition of the master mechanic who crafted it. The College of Surgeons in London attempted to monopolise the teaching of anatomy to happen within the Teaching Hospitals- they reckoned without the change from anatomical study to anatomical exhibition. By the 1840s, the Anatomical museums were largely museums- they were run to appeal to clerical and other workers who had both disposable wealth and time. The Anatomical Museums were amongst the few establishments who remained open into the evening and at weekends: both the National Gallery and the British Museum by contrast were closed save for during working hours.

So why did they close? As the anatomical musseums grew, once again they began to challenge the power of the medical proffession. Perhaps this is most noticable in Kahn's case- he started marketting from the late 1850s drugs for venereal disease within his museum. Various marginal and disputed diseases were advertised through anatomical museums. When the obscene publications act of 1857 came into law, it established that in order to publish an obscene publication the offence was not the intention to promulgate obscenity, but the effect of the action of publishing. Consequently defences based on the educative merit of anatomy were difficult to maintain. The medical proffession seized on the law as a means to prosecute some of the museums- and successful prosecutions associated the museums in the public mind with the pornographers prosecuted under the same act. Many doctors in particular disliked the focus on venereal disease- as they argued it encouraged sexual license because such diseases were punishments for sexual indulgence- a similar argument to that used about Aids a century later. The arguments for prosecution were supported by subscriptions in medical societies- and were bolstered by the fact that the law considered such matters were beyond the capacity of the public but within the capacity of the professional. The cool eyed doctor might examine female genatalia in the way that the rough mechanic might not.

In that sense the demise of the anatomy museum represents the rise of the medical proffession. It does that in two ways- firstly by granting a monopoly to that proffession of knowledge. Secondly though and more interestingly it fortified the reputation of doctors as the possessors of special abilities and knowledge. These abilities were not solely medical but also moral. Doctors possessed the ability to look into the arcana of the human body without it being erotically exciting or dangerously provocative: the general public though could not. Hence the anatomy museums perpetrated crimes under the obscene publications act, but the private collections at the Royal Colleges to which only physicians had access did not.


James Higham said...

We saw one of these in St Petersburg and it was grotesque. People seemed to like it though.

goodbanker said...

Fascinating. Before reading your blog, had I known of the existence of such Anatomy Museums, and of the fact that they captured the public imagination by the C19th only to be dashed within a few generations, I'd have assumed theirs was same fate as befell the Wunderkammer / "Cabinets of Curiosities" of the Early Modern period - which, with the odd exception (such as the wonderful Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA) just don't seem to have been able to sustain the public's interest, as other, more entertaining distractions came along. The link to the Obscene Publications Act is a fascinating insight into Victorian values on several levels. Thank you for drawing Bates' piece to my attention.