'Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be'
In an age of Enlightenment, learning about the human body was one means of acquiring polish, just as young English milordi were sent off on the Grand Tour to learn about the glories of Classical Rome. The Hunter brothers – William and John, the leading figures in London’s surgical landscape – sold this knowledge through lectures, public dissections, and tours of their collections. But other created more lurid and more titillating spectacles from the new anatomy.
Anyone walking past Temple Bar on Fleet Street in the late eighteenth century might have found a queue of gentlemen waiting to enter ‘Rackstrow’s Museum of Anatomy and Curiosities’. Benjamin Rackstrow was a gifted craftsman who worked in wax, and specialised in models of the reproductive system. The ‘Anatomical Collection’ of his museum featured distended wombs, syphilitic genitalia, and deformed foetuses. But the piece de resistance was a wax sculpture of a pregnant woman, partially dissected, with claret running through glass tubes to represent her blood. A ‘Descriptive Catalogue’ published in 1792 gives some striking insights into the contents of Rackstrow’s museum. Visitors might have seen:
The Astonishing and Compleat SKELETON of a full-sized SPERMA-CETI WHALE, being the real bones joined together; near seventy feet in length. The Head, or Skull alone, measures sixteen feet, and is computed to weigh THREE TONS; the upper-jaw is without teeth; the under-jaw has one row of sharp-pointed teeth along each side of it; with these it is probable He can devour Fishes of a considerable size.
Two compleat sets of Human Bones placed in uniform order; the first are remarkable handsome, neat, well-shaped Bones of a Man, in fine preservation, and very white: the second have been of a strong muscular Man, and whose Bones were loaded with an extra quantity of bony matter, rendering them heavy, uneven, rough, and clumsy.
A most ingenious Figure moulded to the Body of Mary Musson, who was executed at Tyburn, for the Murder of her Bastard Child, and dissected at Surgeons’-Hall, by removing the Skin and Fat from the Lean Flesh, which consists of many distinct Masses, called Muscles, whose Fibres, in Life (by alternately contracting with force, and relaxing) are the Instruments of all our Motions; their extremities are Fastened to the Bones by other substances, called Tendons. The natural Swell of the Muscles in contraction, their Situation, and various Arrangements of Fibres are most accurately represented. The whole is coloured exactly to Nature, and is allowed to be a matchless figure.
A most curious Figure, singular for Ingenuity, Accuracy and Contrivance; representing a woman about six months gone with Child; in which the CIRCULATION of the BLOOD is imitated by Liquors flowing through GLASS VESSELS, whose figure and situation exactly correspond with those of the natural blood-vessels; also the Motion of the Blood through the vessels of the Navel-String of the Child; likewise the ACTION of the HEART, with the MOTION of the LUNGS, as in breathing.
Rackstrow’s museum did not just display Enlightenment knowledge. It also drew on a classic Renaissance notion – the ‘cabinet of curiosities’. Visitors could gasp at preserved armadillos, a mummy in its case, a seventy-foot skeleton of a sperm whale, and a wax bust of George III. And it was far from unique. Eighteenth-century London had dozens of similar collections, though none so notorious. Rackstrow’s museum reveals the double face of anatomy and surgery in Enlightenment London: a new and genteel kind of learning, but also a low and lurid spectacle.