The 18th century surgeon John Hunter had an unusual hobby. While other Georgian gents were happy hoarding rare books or colonial curiosities, the Scottish-born doc was amassing a grisly assortment of pickled human and animal parts with the aim of advancing the limited medical knowledge of the age. His collection of more than 3,000 anatomical and pathological specimens—from bone tumors to bumblebee heads—forms the core collection of London's Hunterian Museum in Holborn, which reopened in February after a two-year, $6 million refurbishment.
The museum, owned and operated by the Royal College of Surgeons, isn't for the weak of stomach. One of the first exhibits you'll see upon entry is the preserved intestine of a human fetus, prepared by Hunter for King George III in 1769. Steel-and-glass cabinets house hundreds of other anatomical curiosities: one jar contains the perfectly embalmed face of an 18th century adolescent boy who died from a nasal tumor. The 2.3-m skeleton of Irish giant Charles Byrne, bought by Hunter from an unscrupulous undertaker in 1783, dominates another display.
But the Hunterian is much more than a gallery of the grotesque—its exhibits are educational. Visitors are able to view specimens rarely seen outside of textbook illustrations—such as Hunter's collection of babies, from nine-week-old embryos to fetuses stillborn at nine months. The museum is also testament to the massive medical advances of the past 300 years. The Silver and Steel Gallery juxtaposes clunky antique surgical tools with the sleek instruments used in operating theaters today. Be grateful that the 18th century skull-trepanning brace-and-bit and the brutal mid-19th century "tumor snare" are safely relegated to a blood-spattered past. tel: (44-20) 7869 6560; www.rcseng.ac.uk/services/museums