Travel In London

“Two new destinations are recommended for visitors to London this Fall,” writes Global Correspondent Paul Lewis. “The closure for refurbishment of Sir John Soane’s eccentric but loveable museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields gives visitors to this part of London the chance to call at the splendid headquarters of the Royal College of Surgeons on the opposite side of the square.

“This imposing building with classical pillars in front of its entrance was intended to raise the lowly standing of surgeons in centuries past. Under Henry VIII, they had been organized into the Company of Barber-Surgeons, since most practiced both professions, with medical surgeons only breaking away from the barbers in the 18th century to form the Company of Surgeons. However, to this day, British surgeons are still addressed as ‘Mister,’ rather than ‘Doctor,’ in recognition of their once being allowed to practice without a medical degree.

“When Florence Nightingale told her wealthy parents she wanted to be a nurse, they concluded she must be in love with ‘a low, vulgar surgeon.’ And in surgery’s early days many practitioners were in cahoots with the ‘resurrectionists’ who provided the newly emerging medical schools with anatomical samples by digging up the recently dead.

“Today the Royal College of Surgeons houses London’s most interesting free exhibition–the Huntarian Museum, a collection of anatomical and surgical curiosities first assembled by John Hunter, a noted 18th-century surgeon, and subsequently added to by the College of Surgeons.

“Free it may be, but it is still not for the squeamish. Here you can see the 200-year-old skeleton of the ‘Irish Giant’ John Byrne, who stood 7 feet 7 inches tall. When he died his relatives promptly sold his body to curious anatomists for a tidy sum.

“Examples of every kind of deformed and diseased human organ surgeons met in their daily work are carefully preserved and displayed in glass containers along with the weird and frightening instruments they have devised over the centuries in their efforts to cure them. The original 19th-century Siamese twins are shown in an early photograph.

“Visitors can see enormous growths removed without anesthetic, before and after pictures of the repairs made to horrendous war wounds and burns, as well as splintered bones and malformed skeletons and fetuses galore. A fine portrait of an 18th-century dwarf of noble blood relates that he was not above charging the curious one shilling to look at him. Even Winston Churchill’s dentures are on display. There are also exhibits of fossils and body parts of mammoths and drawings and skeletons of extinct creatures like the dodo.”

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