Gillian McDonald writes for iNews in this latest blog post.
Surgeons’ Hall Museums are home to one of the largest and most historic collections of pathology in the world.
From the personal collections of renowned anatomists such as Charles Bell, to infamous specimens like the pocketbook made from the skin of murderer William Burke, the Edinburgh museums are full of weird and wonderful objects – most of them human.
It has been open to the public since 1832 – making it one of the oldest museums in Scotland – and recently underwent a major redevelopment to make the collections even more accessible to visitors.
Working as a Human Remains Conservator
Originally developed as a teaching museum for students of medicine, Surgeons’ Hall is not for the squeamish. The display cases are packed with jars full of various body parts, showing the effects of diseases and disorders on the human body. Down in Cat Irving’s basement workshop, there are even more specimens – most in poor condition – which need a little TLC before they can make their way upstairs to the museum shelves.
“It’s fascinating to hold a specimen in your hands and be able to tie it to an individual and their involvement in a historical event.” Cat Irving, Human Remains Conservator.
Irving is the museum’s Human Remains Conservator, and has been preserving anatomical specimens since 2002. She joined Surgeons’ Hall Museums in February 2015 to help look after their collections.
A typical day’s work for her includes tasks that most of us probably wouldn’t have a strong enough stomach for.
“Some specimens just require a change in fluid, and it’s possible just to drill into the jar and drain the fluid off, and then introduce fresh fluid with a syringe,” says Irving.
“Other jars will need to be opened up and the specimen removed for work. This can vary from re-hydrating specimens which have dried up entirely, to re-attaching parts which have fallen off.”
With such a varied range of specimens in the museum – the majority dating back to the 18th or 19th century – it’s no surprise that each item presents its own challenges.
“I’ve just been looking at a fractured skull which was in a jar that had lost its lid. This meant that lots of dirt got into the jar so both the skull and jar needed thorough cleaning,” says Irving.
Preserving human connections
It’s not a job that everyone could do, but Irving manages to find beauty in the macabre.
“I love mercury injections – specimens where various structures, usually lymph vessels, have been highlighted using mercury. They look beautiful.”
“I also enjoy working with skulls and the feeling of getting to know something of the face of the person.”
This human connection – placing the specimen in the context of the donor’s life – is something that’s important for Irving.
“It’s fascinating to hold a specimen in your hands and be able to tie it to an individual and their involvement in a historical event,” she says.
One of the Human Remains Conservator’s favourite objects in the museum has a fascinating history which can be traced back to 1812.
“I re-mounted a Russian general’s knee a few months ago. We know the name of the man – General Driesen – and he has a musket ball in his knee from the Battle of Borodino in 1812″.
“We also know that the surgeon tried to treat this wound by dissolving the lead ball within it by pouring mercury in. Unsurprisingly, the leg ended up having to be amputated.”
Learning about ourselves
Irving believes that all the specimens in Surgeons’ Hall have important stories to tell.
Not only can they educate us about the history of surgery and anatomy, but they also help us to get to know our bodies and the way they function.
“Our internal organs are often an abstract concept to us. Most people will – hopefully – never see them, and we can largely go about our daily lives without giving them too much thought, often until something goes wrong“.
“Museums like ours give people a chance to get to know these normally invisible spaces inside of us, while also getting a huge appreciation of the advances in medicine.”