Saturday, 3 October 2015

Lopping them off in Leicester Square

Visitors to Leicester Square today seldom know or learn that it was once the site of the celebrated and cursed anatomy school of the renowned and reviled surgeon John Hunter, despite the presence of his bust in the central area. The visitors are usually there for other reasons.

The younger brother of anatomist Dr. William Hunter, John learned his trade working for William, including body snatching. After serving as an army surgeon for several years, he set up his own school, which eventually settled at the Square. The building, which also contained his house and anatomical museum has been replaced by a pub.

Across the square lay the house of renowned artist Joshua Reynolds, who had a strong interest in anatomy. It is now an All Bar One. Progress.

John Hunter dissected everything he could lay his hands on. His subjects included the Irish Giant, Charles Byrne or O'Brien, whose corpse he acquired against the deceased's wishes by bribing the man who had it, allegedly for the then enormous sum of 500 pounds. In the painting of Hunter below, one can see part of the giant's skeleton at top right.

Animals of all kinds, lower as well as higher, went under John's dissecting knives. He kept a large menagerie of animals at his suburban house at Earl's Court, including kangaroos he received from Sir Joseph Banks. Hunter married poet Jane Home Hunter, who wrote the lyrics to some of Haydn's English songs. John died of a heart attack in 1793 during a heated argument with the governors of St. George's Hospital, where he was head surgeon. His enormous anatomical collection, or what survives of it, now resides in the Hunterian museum, at the Royal College of Surgeons, Lincoln's Inn Fields. Among the exhibits is the skeleton of O'Brien (center).

It's fascinating stuff, but definitely not for the squeamish.

Further Reading:

Wendy Moore, The Knife Man
Druin Burch, Digging up the Dead

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