By Helen Parkinson
Located in the heart of Edinburgh, near the University of Edinburgh’s Old College, is the Surgeons’ Hall Museums, a must-see collection of oddities and artefacts that collectively bear witness to how far we’ve come in our understanding of the human body and all that ails it.
The current museum building – a grand edifice with classical pillars – was built in 1832 by renowned architect William Playfair, but the idea for the museum dates back to 1699, when Edinburgh’s Royal College of Surgeons made a collection of ‘natural and artificial’ curiosities available to the public. This description is still applicable.
The current museum features six permanent exhibitions: the pathology museum, which contains one of the largest collections of pathological anatomy in Europe; the history of surgery; the dental collection; ‘The Real Sherlock Holmes’, which focuses on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s friendship with Joseph Bell of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, who was the author’s inspiration for Holmes; ‘Sight for Scotland: 100 Years of Ophthalmology’; and ‘Skin Deep: The Restoration of Form and Function’, which examines the history of plastic surgery, a practice that amazingly dates back to 800BC.
Each exhibit at Surgeons’ Hall is impressive or surprising in its own way: the dental exhibit, for example, is one of the most significant in the UK and contains rare dental artefacts from around the world, in addition to some of the crudest historical dental tools imaginable. Meanwhile, the history of surgery takes visitors through some of the key medical developments of the last several hundred years, from pre-anaesthesia surgery (imagine that – or don’t) to the discovery of chloroform as an anaesthetic, to the development of antiseptic by Joseph Lister in Scotland.
One of the delightful things about Surgeons’ Hall is that the science is made accessible to the general public. Quirkiness is a prevailing virtue of this museum, from telling about a quack eye doctor who blinded hundreds of patients throughout Europe – potentially including Handel and Bach – on visits he’d make in his carriage that featured painted eyeballs, to all the skeletons and body parts you can handle.
Temporary exhibitions at Surgeons’ Hall often focus on individual contributors to science and medicine, usually ones who have an Edinburgh connection; in 2012, Surgeons’ Hall featured a large exhibition on Joseph Lister, while the year before it was Sir James Young Simpson, an Edinburgh medical pioneer who introduced the use of general anaesthesia during childbirth, among other developments. If your next holidays take you to Edinburgh, Surgeons’ Hall is a worthy stop for anyone, especially scientists, physicians and those interested in history.
Surgeons’ Hall Museum
Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh