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Morbid Curiosity: Inside Edinburgh’s (In)famous Anatomical Museums

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Severed limbs, heads in jars, and the death mask of the infamous resurrectionist William Burke: Dear Darkling steps inside Edinburgh’s famous Anatomical Museums.

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Image courtesy of Surgeons Hall Museums

Alongside the University’s Anatomical Museum, the Surgeon’s Hall Museums in Edinburgh, Scotland, provide visitors with unique insight into the grizzly past of medical history, and have continued to entice darklings from around the world since the late 1600s. The museum has now been separated into 3 distinct sections: The History of Surgery Museum, The Museum of Dentistry, and the Wohl Pathology Museum. If you have ever dreamed of visiting the Mütter Museum in Pennsylvania or the Medizinhistorisches Museum in Berlin, this one is definitely for you.

The History of Surgery Museum

Surgery began as a barbarous profession (pardon the pun), steeped in gore and brutality; it’s little wonder Sweeney Todd became so iconic in the 19th century. The red and white poles seen outside barber’s stores today were once symbols of blood and bandages, the pole itself an homage to the poles gripped by patients during surgical procedures. With no anesthesia until the 1840s, and no antiseptics until the late 1860s, most surgeons were lightning-fast and disturbingly strong; the knives of the great Robert Liston (known for his ability to amputate a leg within 30 seconds flat) are on display here, approximately 4 meters away from a pocketbook made from the skin of notorious murderer William Burke. The death mask of Burke also resides in this museum, the lines from the noose still visible around his neck (see below).

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Image courtesy of Surgeons Hall Museums

The History of Surgery Museum aims to educate its audience on the grizzly details of past procedures, from public dissections to amputations, and the ways in which technology has advanced since the late 1600s. Visitors are invited to try their hand at current surgical techniques, experience the force required to crack open a ribcage, and view a mock public dissection. A display mimicking the week-long public dissection of David Myles, a hanged convict, is also available for your gruesome pleasure in the lower level of the museum (see below).

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Image courtesy of Surgeons Hall Museums

Although the recommended age of viewing is 10+, the museum does cater to little ones. Children can often be seen staring into exhibits intently, exploring the shelves of plastinated organs, and racing one another to complete their “Museum Detectives” workbooks. For adults, events are frequently held at the museum. Dr Lindsey Fitzharris, author of The Butchering Art, has been known to hold talks at the museum, whilst the walking tour “Blood and Guts” allows visitors a rip-roaring romp through Edinburgh’s cadaverous cobbled streets.

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Image courtesy of Surgeons Hall Museums

The Wohl Pathology Museum

Just next door, the Wohl Pathology Museum is home to one of the largest collections of pathological anatomy in the world. Known as the “Chamber of Curiosities,” the two story exhibition takes approximately 3 hours to walk around. Even after all that time, we can guarantee you will have missed something. We recommend your comfiest pair of New Rocks for this one.

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Image courtesy of Surgeons Hall Museums

After the Edinburgh Surgeon’s Hall opened its doors to the public in 1697, surgeons began to ask for donations of “naturall and artificiall curiosities” so that they could be used for the teaching of new physicians. Over time, members of the public, surgeons, and physicians donated countless collections to the museum, consisting of dissected organs, amputated limbs, severed heads, and the skeletal remains of past patients. The public was encouraged to view the “curiosities” and often attended public dissections in the “anatomickal theatre.” The collection eventually grew too large for the original Surgeon’s Hall, and was relocated to the Playfair Building (dubbed the Athens of the North for its Greek revival architecture) where it now resides.

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Image courtesy of Surgeons Hall Museums

As of 1990, the Playfair Building has been open to the general public for morbid viewing pleasure. Walking through the exhibit, wet specimens accost visitors from all angles. In one corner sits the mangled skeleton of a rickets sufferer. In another lies the enlarged skull of a child with hydrocephalus. Hearts with stenosed arteries lay side-by-side with gangrenous limbs whilst eyes with clouded retinas follow your movements from across the room. Separated into more than 29 disease themes, each artifact in the museum is catalogued and numbered, allowing visitors to further explore each case via the interactive computer systems.

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Image courtesy of Surgeons Hall Museums

Information for opening times, ticket prices, and exhibits can be found here. If you’re interested in reading even more about the museums and their events, the Surgeon’s Hall Museum also has a blog which they update regularly with exhibit information, guest writers, and events.

The Edinburgh Anatomical Museum

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Image courtesy of The Anatomical Museum

Housed within the Old Medical School building, Edinburgh’s Anatomical Museum is home to over 12,000 artifacts. About one third of the museum’s collection is related to pathology, anatomy, and zoology, and comprises a plethora of anatomical models, human skeletal remains, and fluid preserved specimens. And if the death mask of William Burke didn’t sate your morbid curiosity, perhaps his skeleton will: the skeletal remains of the serial murderer stand proud in Edinburgh’s Anatomical Museum.

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Image courtesy of The Anatomical Museum

The Anatomical Museum is open all year round to medical students at the University, but opens its doors to the public only once a month. As with the other museums, photography and filming of any kind is also strictly prohibited due to the sensitive nature of the pieces. But don’t fret, darklings. If, like us, you’re desperate to take a peek inside, the museum’s webpage also offers a virtual tour of the major collections, lecture theatre, embalming room, and skull room! The online tour does not include a number of areas, however, and enthusiasts will have to visit the museum to experience the museum in its entirety. Dates and times for these days can be found on their website.

Featured image courtesy of The Edinburgh Anatomical Museum

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About The Author

Chemist by day, alchemist by night, this little redhead gained her Master's degree in Pharmacy by way of witchcraft and strong coffee. Classic literature savant, death enthusiast, avid tea drinker and mother of rabbits, hailing from ye olde Albion. Follow her on Instagram at @x_exmachina_x

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