16th century dissections revisited in Royal College of Physicians' Curious Anatomys display

By Ben Miller | 02 October 2012
A photo of a section of placenta on a dark brown wooden board
Dissected placenta or portal venous system (1650s). Human tissue on pine panel© Royal College of Physicians. Photo: Mike Fear
Exhibition: Curious Anatomys, Royal College of Physicians, London, until December 31 2012

Conjecture swirls around the swooping circular amphitheatre at the University of Padua, in Italy, built in 1594.

This simply-crafted lecture theatre was a robust place for students to observe body parts – it’s impossible to know whether it was the first ever designed, but it’s undoubtedly the oldest still in use today.

An image of a black ink illustration of a physician making a dissection at a table
Andreas Vesalius's book, On the Fabric of the Human Body’, from 1543, features flayed figures and muscle man illustrations
Curious Anatomys revisits the centuries of academia held within a set of anatomy tables as rare as their usage was gristly, bringing human veins, nerves and arteries dissected in the 17th century and arranged onto wooden panels.

The bodies may have been supplied by local hospitals or have been the corpses of executed criminals, opened up in the steeply-tiered space in “performances” carefully monitored for their philosophical, legal and religious resonance.

The tables are thought to have originally been owned by Sir John Finch, a gentleman scientist, globetrotter and ambassador to the Ottoman court in Constantinople known as “a lynx with a knife” for his bone-cutting skills.

They are accompanied by tables from the Hunterian Museum bought by the diarist, John Evelyn, during the 17th century, as well as some of Europe’s earliest anatomy textbooks, containing detailed illustrations of the body.

  • Open Monday-Friday 9am-5pm (closed October 3 and 9). Admission free. Follow the College on Twitter @RCPLondon.

Watch a video about the story behind the show:

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