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London’s Best Kept Secrets: Barts Pathology Museum

Carla Valentine, Technical Curator of Barts Pathology Museum, talks to London Calling about one of London's weirdest museums.

Housing over 5,000 anatomical specimens, Barts Pathology Museum has been called one of the ten weirdest medical museums in the world. From corseted livers to foetuses in wombs and severed hands affected by gout, Barts has unique anatomical specimens on display. London Calling sat down with Carla Valentine, the museum’s technical curator, in the very office at Barts that Arthur Conan Doyle is thought to have written A Study in Scarlett.

London Calling: What is the history of the museum?

Carla Valentine: It was purpose built in 1879 as a repository for anatomical specimens. The earliest specimen we have is from 1750. They were used for teaching. There was a flurry of medical museums that were built around the same time. Ours has a glass ceiling because medical students wanted to look at specimens with as much light as possible. The museum’s heyday was around the 1920s, but then things changed when they altered the way medical students were taught. The museum was used less and less for teaching. By the ‘90s it was completely disused. Pots had started to leak, they were getting stuck to shelves, everything was covered in dust. It stayed that way until 2011, which was when I was appointed thanks to a grant.

LC: What’s the most unusual specimen on display?

CV: It’s difficult because there are 5,000 of them and there’s at least 1,000 of them that I’m not intimately acquainted with because I haven’t got to them yet during the restoration project. The phossy jaw specimens (phosphorus necrosis of the jaw) are particularly unusual. They are specific to the east end of London in the late 1800’s. They are from people who worked in matchstick factories. The white phosphorus they used to dip the little wooden sticks into by hand is incredibly poisonous. It would reach into the bones and affect the jaw mainly. Teeth would fall out and it would cause gum abscesses. These abscesses would worm their way into the jawbone and create holes in the skin so you could actually see through to the jawbone. It would smell and got quite pussy. At night-time the jawbone would glow a whitish green because phosphorus is the substance they used to put on watch hands to make them glow.

LC: What’s it like to touch the potted specimens?

CV: They feel rubbery. Obviously I’m wearing gloves so I don’t have direct contact with them. When a specimen has been fixed in formaldehyde they become very solid and feel like hard rubber.

LC: What’s it like to conserve them?

CV: It’s a big responsibility. They are all people. I don’t assign more importance to one because it’s a baby than I would another. They all deserve the same individual respect. You’ve got the physically fragile aspect of them and the fragile history associated with them. There aren’t reams of information on who these people are or why they ended up in a pot. I have archives where some specimens will have one sentence and a date, some will have three paragraphs and a date, some may say ‘try to consult register X in the Barts Hospital archive’. There’s a lot of technical work in restoring them and this added sense of, ‘Oh my gosh, if I mess this up that’s a lot of history down the drain.’

LC: Did doctors preserve these body parts without consent?

CV: They were taken without permission for the most part. It’s going back to the days of the body snatchers when there really wasn’t enough material to study, so if doctors saw something that was unusual they would keep it and preserve it so they could show it to their students. One of the misconceptions is that everyone here is dead. Many people would have been alive. We have scrotal cancer examples from chimney sweeps, who would have been alive. You can watch me talk about it online. People can be alive without a foot or a hand but obviously a lot of them came in post mortem, in which case no one will have been asked, the doctors will have just taken what they wanted. It was a pre-consent culture.

LC: What workshops can the public get involved in?

CV: We have regular organ potting workshops, which I facilitate. We use ethically sourced animal hearts, we don’t take them from people! We use historical preserving techniques. The workshop involves a highly illustrated lecture on the history of anatomical preservation because the point is to put it into context: to make people understand the issues of consent, the fact that consent never used to exist, and how were the pots acquired. It’s a great opportunity to introduce people to the collection properly.

LC: What is the connection between Barts and Sherlock Holmes?

CV: Arthur Conan Doyle was a medical student. They say he may well have written A Study in Scarlett here because he describes stone staircases, jars and of course Sherlock and Watson met at Barts Hospital. In one of the latest episodes of Sherlock Holmes they recreate the Reichenbach Falls where Sherlock famously takes the plunge. Benedict Cumberbatch jumped off our glass roof. The episode made such an impact that the phone-box outside is full of messages to Sherlock and prayers for his safety.

For more information and tickets to events and workshops at Barts Pathology Museum, please see website.