Public Dissections

Modern medicine tends to be divided between doctors in general practice, and those in hospitals who specialise in various fields. But for centuries there were two groups: Physicians who were educated, elite and well educated, and barber-surgeons who were mere tradesmen and often treated people by bleeding them. Apparently this in turn dates to when priests were also soldiers. They were banned from shedding blood, so could no longer perform surgery, so they continued as physicians while surgery was left to laymen.

When infirmaries began to be founded as charities in the early 18th century, both of these professions were involved, but barber surgeons often complained of having lower status and wages. They tended not to wash their instruments between patients and operated in gore caked coats that were more to keep their clothes clean than for any concern for their patients/victims. I read an account of an amputation when the famous surgeon was so drunk he removed the wrong leg, despite his audience repeatedly warning him of his mistake. The victim was a poor young woman who died of the shock.

By the 18th century many of the old guilds were closed or just faded away, and in 1745 the united Company of Barbers and Surgeons was dissolved, allowing the Surgeons to become more respectable professionals. This also put an end to their control on carrying out dissections in their Hall, so William Hunter held his first anatomical lectures in London the following year, probably at a house in Covent Garden where he had been collecting anatomical specimens for study. In 1762 he applied to build a purpose built venue, including a small house, museum, library, circular dissecting room and a burial ground. The Earl of Shrewsbury soon proposed a pan to build it by public subscription, offering to start the fund with a donation of £1,000 but this would have meant having no control over the scheme, soHunter refused. Instead he bought a house on Great Windmill Street in 1766 and employed Robert Mylne – a fellow Scot to whom he was related by marriage – to rebuild it, including a rear yard, behind which were rooms for preparing the ‘subjects’. There is no mention here of a burial ground.The first lecture was held at the new Windmill Street on 1 October 1767. In 1768 he claimed to have spent over £6,000 and that it would cost him at least two more. This shows how profitable such lectures were. The museum continued for many years at the site, but closed in 1831, strangely a year before the first anatomy act was passed, making human dissection legal, though it had probably become so widespread the act was merely formalising standard practice.His collection eventually became part of the University of Glasgow.    

In 1887 it was sold to H. J. Leslie who employed the architect C.J. Phipps to convert it to the Lyric Theatre, which continues to this day.

7 thoughts on “Public Dissections

  1. Wow, I sure didn’t know so much about surgeons and how the profession earned it’s importance in the society. Thank you for sharing this post. I always leave here with more knowledge than when I arrived!

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      • Absolutely!! I don’t know if you’ve hear about Jains…Jainism is a religion in India..the earliest Jain monks are known to have been surgeons who learnt the craft by exhuming bodies, much like how da Vinci and other early surgeons went about it.

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  2. not all barber-surgeons were ‘mere tradesmen’ although they were tradesmen – some were very well informed. there are a few footnotes on this sort of material in A CERTAIN MEASURE because one of the key links between the Family and Roger Brierley was a barber-surgeon… quite an interesting one at that.


      • When under investigation at Lambeth, Giles Creech mentioned one Fisher. He did not associate him with any specific Familist or Antinomian grouping but he claimed that Fisher “selles old bookes and got Theolog (sic) Germanica translated into English by a minister at Grendleton (sic) called Brierly or Tenant.” He went on to say that the book then went via a scrivener, Woolstone, to John Everard, who had been undertaking translations of the dreaded Teutonic Theology into English for both the Earl of Holland and the Earl Mulgrave.
        Fisher of Old Bailey was a barber-surgeon in the City of London with a sideline in (and deep interest in) theological books including some of an Antinomian leaning. His unofficial role seems to have been bookseller. He is believed by some to have been the son of Sir Edward Fisher of Mickleton in Gloucestershire. Fisher was clearly active in London from some point after 1630 – the year in which he graduated from Brasenose College, Oxford. His mother seems to have been Mary Chaloner, the daughter of Sir Thomas Chaloner – the naturalist and the innovator with alum and tutor to Prince Henry, the son of James I. If Fisher arrived in London in 1630, then – according to his own later account – he did so at the height of the Antinomian tide in the capital.
        In his ‘The Marrow of Modern Divinity’ first published in 1645 – see The Marrow in British Library Rare Books, 16th Edition, RB.23a.7582 (Glasgow, 1766) there is an imaginary debate between Evangelista (the minister), Nomista (the legalist), Antinomista (obviously, the Antinomian) and Neophitus (a young Christian).
        The case for a second antinomian Mr Gray is in part verified by none other than Fisher who quotes from ‘The sermon of the perfection of a Christian’ by a ‘Mr Gray junior’. The Creech testimony suggests that Grey, like Shaw, had some more specific involvement with the Valley

        From the footnotes of CERTAIN MEASURE

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