The medical student walks reverently across the parquet floor: hanging gas lamps spill pools of light onto the polished wood, and as his shadow swims through them he hears the echoes of his footfalls rise purposefully to the lantern ceiling. He passes shelf after shelf of potted specimens, golden light bouncing from the curved glass like wolves eyes in the moonlight, until at last he locates the pot he is seeking. Carefully he picks it up and examines the delicate minutiae of the specimen, recording each detail deftly with his pencil, softly scratching the paper with the lead, the quick strokes the only sound in this silent, cavernous museum….
Barts Pathology Museum - courtesy of The Royal London Hospital Archives
The way medical student are taught may have changed since the heyday of the Pathology Museum in the 1920s and 1930s, but the building itself has lost none of the drama. The architect Edward I’Anson oversaw the completion of the museum in 1878 and it was opened in 1879 by the Prince of Wales who later became Edward VII. Although built in a similar style to many other medical museums of the era, it differs in that it is an open plan space of approximately 28 by 11 metres square. It is made up of 3 mezzanine levels each around 8 metres high, all linked by a beautiful spiral staircase. After an illustrious history helping along the careers of such famous names as James Paget, Percival Pott and his student John Hunter among others, the museum was awarded Grade II Listed status in 1972. However, after the opening of a new Pathology department in 1909 and an extension for Clinical Skills teaching being built in the 1970’s, the old Pathology Museum gradually fell into disrepair.
The neglect seems absolutely criminal when considering that these shelves house such specimens as the skull of John Bellingham, the assassin of the Prime Minister, Spencer Percival, who was subsequently ‘hanged and anatomized’ for his crime in 1812. The infrastructure of the museum began to suffer, as did the collection itself, and it has taken many years of grant applications and discussions for the management to be able to fund a technician to conserve the specimens and breathe life into this grand but crumbling relic. Grant funding was provided by The Medical College of Saint Bartholomew's Hospital Trust, a registered charity that promotes and advances medical and dental education and research at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry.
The place itself is fascinating, as are the specimens held within, and there is an interesting history attached to nearly every object. For example, St Bartholomew’s Hospital is the location Sir Arthur Conan Doyle chose for his characters Holmes and Watson to have their first fortuitous meeting. A plaque commemorating this event hung on the office wall since the 1950s. Also, a three-minute silent comedy film featuring Holmes and Watson has been filmed here, and the Sherlock Holmes Society of London has had a film screening in the venue. That is one of the benefits of the open plan space: not only is there space for AV equipment and seating, there is even room for a bar. There is a very popular seminar season held here during the autumn and winter months when the glass ceiling does not interfere with the projector.
The most exciting development of 2014 involves the purchasing of tablet computers to be used by museum visitors, who will be able to access specimen information via QR codes. The museum will be open by appointment only from August 2014.
The organisation of the specimens at Barts has created a similar lay-out to that of the Berlin Medical History Museum in which only the ground floor gallery is open to the public and contains the interesting historical specimens, with the upper galleries reserved solely for teaching and for allied health professionals. We hope that in time that will change.
Frequently the museum is used as a basis for articles and filming for documentaries: it’s been host to the BBC, The Guardian Newspaper and members of Time Team.
With an entry in the London Hidden Interiors book which listed us as one of London’s “Hidden Treasures”, a nomination for a Museums and Heritage Award, and the increasing media involvement, the future looks set to be exciting for Barts Pathology Museum.