Take A Tour Of Surgeons’ Hall Museum With Mr. Horror Musical
Cinema Junkie / October 9, 2015
If you have ever had the secret desire to look through medical books with their explicit photos of disease, deformities and medical science, then I have the perfect thing for you.
Beth Accomando: Welcome back to the KPBS cinema junky podcast. I’m Beth Accomando, it’s Friday so that means another horror themed episode for you. I have got a question for you. How many of you ever snuck a look at a medical book with its explicit photos and illustrations of disease or deformities. I know, it half grossed you out and half fascinated you. You didn’t want to look but you had to. Well that’s at the root of horror, you’re seduced and reviled simultaneously at times.
For today’s special horror themed October podcast, I want to stray a little bit from movies to introduce you to two things. First to Jesse Merlin, aka Mr. Horror Musical and to the Surgeons Hall Museum in Edinburgh Scotland, what do these two things have in common? Well in 2012 Merlin who had been playing the character of Dr. Hill and Re-Animator the Musical in Hollywood, went with the casting crew to Scotland to partake in the Annual Festival French. Being an ardent fan of Re-Animator the Musical, I naturally followed them to Scotland. That’s when Merlin told me about the Surgeons Hall Museum. Let me begin by introducing you to Jesse Merlin and his unique skill set so you can see why he is the perfect person to take us on a tour of Surgeons Hall Museum.
What do a Reanimated DVM surgeon, cannibalistic serial killer and a Maxone Seedall inspired Catholic Priest all have in common. Well they are all characters and musical plays inspired by horror films and they are all played by the classically trained opera singer Jesse Merlin.
Merlin looks like a caricature by young and untan [phonetic][00:01:38] George Hamilton and has a base baritone voice perfect for Gilbert and Sullivan Since that’s not what Hollywood is looking for Merlin had to scare paroles [phonetic][00:01:47] elsewhere.
Merlin: I have just become Mr. Horror Musicals lately, if it is Dr. Hill and Re-Animator the Musical and then I was Hannibal and a bunch of other roles as The Swing in Silence- the Musical here in LA.
Beth Accomando: Recently he played a comic version of Maxone Seedall’s Catholic Priest in a Hollywood Fringe Production called “Exorcistic - The Rock Musical Parody Experiment”
Merlin: I was a little scared by making my entrance as the priest with a hip hop number
Beth Accomando: This is the guy who began singing opera professionally at 22.
Merlin: I think it is ironic because now that’s my selling point. That here I am, this high flute and snooty, ridiculous opera singer having to wade into the entrails of rock musical and not just do hard rock and perform with a four piece you know just act really cook and rock band for the first time but also you know lay down the beats and free style little bit.
Beth Accamando: Let’s leave the projectile vomit of Exorcistic behind and move on to the blood spatter of Re-Animator the Musical, Merlin plays Dr Hill in the horror musical based on Stewart Gordon 80s cult classic. Dr. Hell is a lecherous surgeon who literally loses his head and reanimates from the dead.
Merlin: There is a decapitation on stage, then I have a puppetry rig where I am carrying my own decapitated head around while singing [song] [0:03:25]
Beth Accamando: With a good head on his shoulders and another in the prop room, Merlin saw an opportunity to exploit something he’s always loved to do.
Merlin: I discovered early on that playing a villain is about the most fun you can have as an actor. When I got to Re Animator for example playing decapitated zombie pervert was just like the role I feel I was born in the play.
Beth Accamando: That brings us to horror musical number three, Merlin got to understudy and eventually play the role of Hannibal Lecter in Silence - The Musical.
Merlin: [Singing] I’d like to tell her I don’t care
but something in her eyes…
I’d like to tell her life’s not fair
but right above her thighs.
If I could help her solve this case
Perhaps they’d let me leave this place
for one that has a bit more space
I want to see a tree!
Lonely lonely lunatic
I’m charming but I’m also sick
I need an audience for my schtick
Perhaps it could be she!
If I could smell her cunt
If she would grant my simple little wish
I could illuminate this dungeon
With one small whiff of tuna fish
I’d give her what she wants
If I could smell her cunt
Merlin: I kind of thought about what about opera and particularly Gilbert and Sullivan, which is big, part of my background too, leads me to horror. I think it’s a grounding in over the top archetypal stock characters, extreme characters. I think horror is a place where actors who were off beat who don’t look like models, who don’t look like an obvious easily marketed character type, someone who is a little average or unusual looking or has an unusual talent will find a place in horror where maybe nowhere else really has a place for you.
Beth Accamando: So that’s Jesse Merlin and one summer day in 2012 he decided to take me on a tour of the Surgeons Hall Museum in Scotland.
Merlin: And appropriately enough here on Hill Square on Hill place is the real Surgeons Hall, the real College Of Surgeons at Edinburgh University which is one of the first surgery universities in the world. Really a remarkable museum that’s one of the very few pathology collections open to the public and first place I came when I got here to perform Re Animator The Musical, so it feels like Dr. Hill’s classroom and it feels like Hannibal Lecter’s kitchen and that’s an extra lamp playing in Silence of the Lambs Musical. So it seems to be a theme, I am starting to think I should have gone to med school; I play nothing but evil doctors. I hope you enjoy it, this is a beautiful play.
Beth Accamando: But before we go inside, let me take a little side trip to the offices of Chris Henry who is director of Heritage at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. This cheery man knew everything you ever wanted to know about the museum. So let me digress from Jesse store for a few minutes to get some background on the museum and what it does.
Chris Henry: Well Surgeon Hall Museum is really an extension of Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and it’s a museum which is built in 1832 to display human specimens which originally held for teaching purposes but encompasses much more than that. It encompasses scientific instruments, art and dentistry. So it’s a sort of wide ranging surgically based museum which welcomes general public as well as medical specialists.
Beth Accamando: And explain a little bit about how the museum is kind of divided up and what kind of things people would find here.
Chris Henry: Yeah, well it’s an art place. It’s linked really the main building which is called the “Playfair Hall” named after the architect William Playfair is, as I said was built in 1932 and that was originally designed in 1832 as a museum that held the medical specimen. So for the main part within that area you have an upper and lower floor. The lower floor is mainly open to the public and that shows specimens can range from anything from a brain in a jar to a art by the famous Napoleonic artist Charles Bell and that part follows themes, normally based around anatomy or disease particular kind of pathology and then next to it, joined by small staircase was called the History Of Surgery Museum which really takes you from the start of the incorporation of our surgeons in 1505 right up to the present day and talks about surgical techniques, really more about the technology but it covers things like ophthalmic surgery which is surgery of the eyes. It talks about plastic surgery and we also deal with things like cardiac and we have our special exhibitions in that area and the one at the moment is about the famous surgeon Joseph Lister.
But there is also joining that separate museum really which is a small museum based around dental surgery. The key thing about that is that the dental collection was started by a gentleman called John Menzies Campbell, Mingis Campbell as they say in Scotland and he was an avid collector of all things dental. So everything from famous paintings of people like Bartholomew Risbini who was a London dentist and two things that used to elevators and things you used to pull teeth out, drills all those things that everybody wants to run a mile from normally, but generally when it’s behind a glass front then you’re more safer to look at it. Almost all the paintings that we have depict some form of removal of the tooth with lots of blood and grimacing and I think in the early peer certainly from sort of 16th and 17th century it was a traumatic experience for anybody. But then I suppose you balanced the pain of your toothache against what the dentist could do for you.
Beth Accamando: Now the use for the museum or for the specimens that are here seems pretty obvious for like students but for the general public and people coming in, why do you think it’s important to have exhibits like these for people to come see?
Chris Henry: Well first of all it’s really [indiscernible] [00:09:36] understanding human body, very few people see what’s inside themselves and over their lifetime, you might cut yourself and see a bone or something like that. We generally don’t have an idea, you can look as many books as you like to see human anatomy and you can look at computers but there is nothing like actually seeing the real thing even though it’s preserved in a jar and it lost its color. I mean it’s a strange thing because on the one hand there is a tendency to be voyeuristic about these things but on the other hand there is an absolutely undeniable fascination about human body. And we find that people coming in here even if they are in part squeamish very soon become quite used to seeing things.
But there is more than that, it’s really about an understanding how does the body work. It’s a fascinating machine, an organic machine which has so many different facets to it that we just can’t help but want to see inside us, so there is nothing from the public - that’s one of the big draws. But there are also a number of other draws which are really about people being associated with surgery and there have been quite a few. I mean when we started at the beginning we talked about James Suffolk of Scotland who was himself interested in surgery and actually carried out on occasion, though what happened to his patients is not generally well known.
But also we have people in Scotland Burke and Hare, the two individuals who murdered 16 people to get their bodies so that it could be used for anatomical dissection. But a lot of people don’t know also that one of the key figures in the history of the college in a way was a surgeon called Joseph Bell, upon whom which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based his character of Sherlock Holmes. In fact we have a letter in the collection which confirms that Bell was the model for Sherlock Holmes. So surgeons have been involved in lots of different things and we’ve specimens but also these other people that are all linked in with history, certainly with the history of Scotland but also internationally and I think Scotland internationally has been important and important with the development of medicine.
So, for example the Edinburgh University started in 18th century and very rapidly became a center of excellence for medical learning and that spread throughout the world, so it’s a pretty significant place for the development of medicine - this along with the university, probably the two main institutions in Scotland.
Beth Accamando: How would the specimens or a lot of the things here collected? Are they things that were donated, are they things that were there from the beginning?
Chris Henry: Certainly in the late 17th – 18th century people operated on other people and took the bits that weren’t going to be use anymore and put them in a jar because they were fascinated with the condition and also understanding of the human body was not as good as it is now obviously. So in those days there was no real information [indiscernible] [00:12:46] this stuff was just taken and put in jars and people individually developed collections and part of the reason for developing collections were so that you could teach or set yourself up as a teacher and there was money in it. I mean if you had a big collection of curiosities then people were more likely to come to your lectures, because they could get a fuller understanding of what they may have to do.
And it wasn’t really until the 20th century that there were controls over what you did with the human body and certainly I talked about Burke and Hare, but as a result of Burke and Hare activities the anatomy act came into being in 1832 in England which meant you could no longer just take cadavers and do with them as you like. So there were rules began to be enforced and certainly 20th century we’ve had several bits of legislation that have controlled that so that now the museum is going by the Human Tissue Act 2006 in Scotland which means we’ve to take an ethical consideration of how we display our objects as well.
So it’s been a kind of incremental process about how people have collected them and why they have collected them but we are not at a state, the human tissue collection in this college is closed, so it stays as it is. And as you can see when you go around there have been lots of different ways of preserving. There is lots of things preserved in jars normally in something like formalin or in the older days, it was spirits of wine. But they have been preserved by injecting them with wax for example, and there are examples of hands and feet which have been injected with colored wax to show their veins or the arteries. And then they have been reduced in some kind of corrosive substance to leave just the wax network around the bones, which makes a very beautiful in a way preservation. And you also see this with kidneys and things like that. You actually see the structure and it really is an amazing thing to see the network of the human veins and arteries around a hand or around a specific limb or organ.
Beth Accamando: Now you brought up Burke and Hare and after Burke was executed he was publicly dissected which was kind of fitting for his crime. [Laughing]
Chris Henry: Yeah, it has a very – I think it was certainly seen as a punishment and I think you’ve got to remember that religion played a very strong part in people’s attitudes and anything that sort of affected the way your body went to its final resting place was particularly worrying. And dissection was seen to be almost a fate worth an execution in some respect. And I have an interesting little story about the famous Scot surgeon John Hunter whose name is associated with the Hunterian Collection in London but also his brother started the Hunterian Collection in Glasgow. But John Hunter was fascinated with human body and was very keen on collecting the remains of various either stunted or overgrown individuals and one particular individual was an Irish giant.
He actually approached the NASKT [phonetic] [0:15:58] to could they have his body after his death and normally with giants it’s an enlarged or problem with the growth hormones in the body. He would probably die about you know aged 20 odd and Hunter asked him if he could buy his body and the gentleman concerned was shocked and horrified. So he asked his friends to bury his body at sea. And he duly died and Hunter came to an arrangement with the undertake to take the body and the story is that they filled the coffin full of rocks and the friends dumped the coffin over the side full of rocks, that’s the story.
But it just demonstrates how concerned people were to preserve their body intact after death. I mean there are lots of books and theories being written on why that maybe but certainly religion played a strong part in it. So it’s certainly seen as a punishment and executed criminals were considered to be fair game and certainly prior to 1832, Edinburgh Town Council would provide the college with normally about a body a year. It was very, very little and considering the number of people who wanted to teach surgery wasn’t enough and therefore people resorted to other means and they termed resurrection when it came into use which is people would go to graveyards and [indiscernible] [00:17:20] bodies just to supply surgeons and teachers, practitioners with something to demonstrate on.
So it was a kind of very widely spread practice. I think the Burke and Hare tragedy really meant that once and for all a law came on the statute books, which was intended to stop that sort of behavior. So it’s a very strong link between religion, death, the use of the body and there was a tension between how we understand our body, how we learn about it and how we acquire the means to do that and I think that was always going to be an issue.
Beth Accamando: And do you have a number in terms of like how many visitors you get?
Chris Henry: Yeah, we get about 30,000 visitors a year. You know it’s very shocking some of the things you see here and you think god you know really, some of the stuff is quite outrageous but within three or four days you realize that actually that is all part of the human body and I think the thing that struck me is how people have lived with some of these conditions. And the most shocking was, she’s not on display for me, is almost an entire head in a jar which is unnamed but was collected in about 1811 and its [indiscernible] [00:18:38] had two very, very large facial tumors, so much so you know it was not something came into the Elephant Man, if your listeners know who that is. And it is still quite shocking for people to see.
And I’ve worked with some artists on the project to look at that but what I enjoy and I think about is the kind of taking up something like that and turning it into something that people then begin to appreciate and reflect upon and then maybe come back and do something else with it. And word goes out and you get all the people coming in as a result of that, I think it’s that sense of influencing people’s interest is probably the most satisfying part of this job.
Beth Accamando: That lays a good foundation for what the museum is all about. Now let’s go inside with Jesse Merlin and explore.
Merlin: Well, yeah that’s other thing, Dr. Hill is a brain scientist and I have a scene where I do an autopsy on a cadaver and pull brain out of the skull and so the museum is located on Hill Square on Hill Place which is just perfect and you come in kind of through inconspicuous second floor landing on a back doorway and find yourself somewhere between the kind of a hall of horrors and a really fascinating modern museum.
Beth Accamando: Are there some favorite points in this exhibit that you’d like to --.
Merlin: There is a lot of [indiscernible] [00:20:04] this is really interesting. These early anatomical displays of hand and foot, I think they filled the blood vessels with mercury and other liquid metals to get them to hold their shape and the whole process, what’s the word maceration the say they stripped the flesh from the bones and the way they preserve that is really --.
Beth Accamando: Tell us what it is.
Merlin: This is injected and varnished dissection of an infant by John Berkeley who is I think one of the first directors here, one of the first major collections of comparative anatomy here at the museum but yeah it’s quite shocking. It’s kind of in a standing almost proud position and you can see how its head has been varnished and its head has different organs prepared and filled with different heavy metals to preserve for display and instruction. I think that’s one of the things you feel keenly when you come here is that whether or not they did it voluntarily or they did it intentionally you know countless numbers of people have made quiet a sacrifice by being included with this collection and contributing to the understanding of medical students for hundreds of years and hopefully well into the future.
I mean it really is – it’s the same sense of gravitas and kind of solemn respect you have to have in an old cemetery I mean, but these are people who really have contributed a lot. This was also something I was describing these are four different examples of broken leg bones here and broken foot that were badly set or not set at all, simple fractures and compound fractures and you can see that kind of really extreme deformities that came out of it. So I’d imagine how people would walk, just with great pain, those who were able to survive long enough to have their legs heal. And just something as simple as a modern bone setting is something we really take for granted, don’t think much about.
But what I find interesting is just how gruesome the whole history of surgery is until we get to Lister really you know besides a few advances in amputation and wound dressing which was pretty dodgy to begin with and also there is a lot of bloodletting in this country, until they understand the cleaning of wounds, the cleaning of instruments and the basic nature of microbes and infectious disease, they are really not allowed to brag about it. I mean even if you had a gangrenous infection amputated you still get at a 50: 50 chance of survival. So --.
Beth Accamando: Well the other thing I thought was interesting too is the fact that they were barbarous surgeons.
Merlin: Right but you know the word barber had a different meaning than what we think now you know, have a tooth pulled, some trepanning or bloodletting done, have some leeches, have barber surgeons, it’s kind of frightening idea. Yeah there is a lot here about military injuries, yeah this is a femur with a gunshot wound in the side of it preserved in alcohol and you know it’s a really interesting cross section. They have similarly preserved faces from First World War, lot of preserved stuff from the Crimean War and other things like that.
More stuff over here, you can see entry and exit wounds of bullets from highlander killed at the Battle of Culloden 1746, entry and exit wounds made by Hanoverian Musket Ball and over here cool range of different kinds of ordinance that can end up in your body or stuck in the bone. This one is really fascinating, it’s a bunch of saber strikes on the top of a skull I think a French cavalryman killed at Waterloo.
Beth Accamando: Can you like describe what this skull looks like?
Merlin: Yeah this is just the top section of a skull of a French cavalryman killed at the Battle of Waterloo and it has a bunch of angular fairly deep saber cuts, so presumably he was struck maybe even while on his horse over the top of the head and he could easily have died from blood loss from his injuries. But I mean it’s not just the injuries that’s interesting, it’s the way it falls in the place of history, you see it particularly with a lot of the compound fractures and bone injuries that until basic modern techniques in bone setting were understood things would heal in a really grotesque and deformed ways and I think one of the things that’s interesting about having all these pathological specimens from 1700s and 1800s is a lot of these diseases and conditions simply don’t exist in the modern world.
So the only way we can study them is with very old specimens. And there are some things that they can be proud of here too. This is a fellow here who actually was an accomplice, when we get to the Burke and Hare case, the very famous grave robber and body snatcher, murder case from I guess the 1820s. One of their accomplices or a companions had a very deformed mouth and neck from a burn injury and so they would take casts out of gentlemen like this before surgery to improve his condition and then after. So here you see him before and I think somewhere else you can see his improved state.
This stuff of probably endless film adaptations and gory stories is Dr. Robert Knox and the case of grave robbers and murderers Burke and Hare. Robert Knox actually has quite a connection to this place because he was the first conservator I guess of the Berkeley collection and conservator of the museum here in the 1820s. So he was a lecturer of anatomy and a very famous doctor and scientist and in this time there were guys in his profession were constantly in need of fresh specimens kind of like Herbert West and Re Animator, not for experiments bringing the dead back to life but for dissection anatomical lectures. And it is a largely unregulated practice of where they would get the bodies from and there was a rather high premium paid for fresh bodies.
So barring the fairly irregular execution of young healthy specimen when they’d be guaranteed the body, there was a very frequent need for it and Dr. Knox was never directly implicated himself, though he was tarnished by the scandal that two men had been providing him with bodies, not only robbing graves but they were actually murdering people and bringing them in fresh and unmarked probably smothering them so it wouldn’t be particularly obvious that they had been murdered and this went on for quite a while until they were caught. Hare went Queen’s evidence against Burke and Burke was hanged for the crime and we have the death mask casting of Mr. Burke here, you can see the injury on his neck very clearly. And among the other gruesome parts of this collection is a pocket book supposedly made from his skin, feeling against these men was very high.
It’s hard to imagine that one of them was actually allowed off for turning Queen’s evidence, but this kind of led to the downfall of Dr. Knox, he was never criminally tried himself but he lost his position and it really brought a lot of shame to the occupation and to the hall here. And I think it was about in 1832 they had to bring in an act strictly regulating the sourcing of dead bodies. One thing is worth mentioning is if you go to Greyfriars Cemetery here in Edinburgh you see several examples of things I’ve never seen in the United States. I don’t know if really if they exist anywhere called Mortsafes which are iron cages placed over graves to prevent body snatching. People were so worried about it; they’d place over a tomb or a small crypt and actually locked a grilled iron cage on top of it.
Beth Accamando: And one of the things I was curious, I don’t know if you looked into it or if you could just mention it but it points out that he was publicly dissected which seems--.
Merlin: Yeah that’s kind of a full circle there. Yeah, you could imagine the love of [indiscernible] [00:28:29] and interest that went around that public dissection. I don’t know the details of it, I wonder if it was just restricted to medical students or families of the victims kind of like watching a modern execution. You can see a contemporary period showing his hanging in and how many people were there watching and how closely followed it was.
Beth Accamando: It seems like a kind of fitting end for him considering what he did.
Merlin: Yeah, it really is the kind of stuff legend here. It really is kind of almost like Disneyland or Mr. Lincoln talks about America, here they’ve got different wax figures dressed in period costumes in the reconstructed offices of the famous doctors. We have Robert Knox here you know rather dashing purple regency era coat which is accurate down to his sideburns and his cataract. And it has a lot or, to the modern eye the rather grisly parts of his collection here. I mean simple stuff like his violin, deformed skeleton; a kind of half dissected and varnished child skeleton in a case and another deformed skeleton over there.
Beth Accamando: Not what you see in a modern doctor’s office.
Merlin: Though why I can't tell. Oh here this I think this is interesting, the gentleman I believe is this what I am thinking – the accomplice to the Burke and Hare crimes, that’s him. That’s his deformed face, I think, so they have a wax casting of his deformed face and they actually have his skull here. I think, yeah John Brogan, it was one of the accomplice of the murderers and I guess they have Burke‘s skeleton somewhere else nearby.
This is interesting as we get into the modern area it gets a lot more impressive, there is a lot more to be proud of particularly things like development of anesthesia and they have a lot of the original devices which were some of the first used. Something almost looks like a old-fashioned oil and combined with an asthma inhaler was almost like a hookah that you would breathe through nerve compression for removing sensation, probably mostly prior to amputation. Rather grisly obstetrical forceps here.
Beth Accamando: Some of the stuff actually looks like torture tools.
Merlin: Yeah this is a well preserved alcohol specimen of a compound fracture of the leg and you can see – I think that was amputated due to gangrene, severe comminuted compound fracture with the tibia and fibula both broken in two places. Oh, this is interesting, this is the very beginning of antiseptic technique where they talk about carbolic acid that- it’s funny Lister was – I think it was involved with using it to clean out the sewers and that’s where he first had the idea for dressing wounds and sterilizing instruments. He immediately had a huge increase in the survival rate of patients.
Yeah the Lister exhibition is probably bigger than the Conan Doyle exhibition here, in terms of something they are really proud of. Here we have Dr. Lister and some of his actual clothes, kind of like Madame Tussauds here with a photograph of one of his operation in the background and this is an early cauterizing instrument that he actually used to sterilize his surgical tools. This is actually bench from his infirmary, now they allow you to sit on here so it is really living history more of his clothes here. I love 19th century [indiscernible] [00:32:27] beautifully preserved stuff and then all the gold medals and silver trowels he won, they were very happy with him.
If you think about it he probably saved more lives from his discoveries than god probably most doctors throughout history. This is particularly interesting to me playing Dr. Hill as a brain scientist because this is a cross section of a brain where they operated on the patient in 1884. Yeah this is one of Lister’s unsuccessful operations, he opened the skull to try and relieve an abscess and you can see the large probably walnut sized abscess here in the brain and it looked like it was going to be a success because he did gain some of his eyesight back and seemed to recover. But, I mean, god the fact that they even attempt open brain surgery in the 1880s is pretty amazing. He did die about 10 days after the operation but they have inflamed and abscessed part of his brain preserved here.
Yeah and this is where we start to get to the more gruesome preserved specimens here like a gangrenous foot, a lot of things that were preserved after amputation. Yeah, fibroadenoma of the breasts, really things you just – as a lay person you are never going to see inside this kind of a condition or inside this kind of wounds unless you are looking at pictures on the internet and if you are morbid or gruesomely inclined but these are really things as old as they are presented in an educational way for [indiscernible] [00:34:02] students and lay people alike.
We’re about to enter the pathology hall which is very, I thought really juicy stuff, so to speak. I was mentioning earlier the “Hinc Sanitas” which stands for “From Here Health”. the [indiscernible] [00:34:20] or medallion or [indiscernible] [00:34:21] or whatever you call it, the symbol of this university is really beautiful and full of meaning and it starts with a little scroll at the top that says Hinc Sanitas and has the sun kind of dispelling the clouds of ignorance. Above it we have the knights helmet which I think is related to the royal charter and to either side of it we have Aesculapius with his staff with the snake which I think is the source of the doctors caduceus, you know the double snake with staff that you see doctors wear even now.
So Aesculapius of Greek myth, over on the right we have Hypocrites looking very austere reading his book and that all of these details here we have the St. Andrew’s Cross with the Crown of Thistle which is the sign of Scottish Royalty, the Scottish charter, all the different grisly instrument of the trade of surgery, a hand with an eyeball in it pointing down from the cloud, which is great this kind of symbol [indiscernible] [00:35:25] - the seeing hand of the surgeon, that a body on his side and underneath that the castle which represents the City of Edinburgh. I think at the bottom it’s a bunch of medicinal herbs and roots. So usually you are going to see this kind of a symbol, you know no bigger than the size of a quarter but it’s absolutely full of meaning.
And out over here we have a preserved snake and then a couple of Greek style clubs with the snakes of Aesculapius and I gather in the past they used to have quite a collection of preserved animals specimens which were all taken away because they are not really used you know in the post Darwin or comparative anatomy between animals and human beings is less instructive I gather. But they do have a few things left, there is a gigantic elephant skull as you come down the stairs that’s worth a look. So here we get to more preserved stuff and it’s just to describe the way they preserved things at the time, tissue preservation with mercury by injections with blood vessels really you end up with something very colorful and very vibrant looking. The problem with preserving tissue in alcohol is it, certainly after hundred years most of the pigment is leeched out just by the nature of the fluid. But I mean here is something as delicate as like lymph vessels, can be preserved through mercury injection and hold their shape even hundred years later.
Oh yeah this is more modern, acrylic corrosion, yes they inject in blood vessels normal kidney with colored acrylic to show circulation. That’s more modern and very colorful. This I think is really quite remarkable, this is right handed wrist dissected to show anatomy of [indiscernible] [00:37:29] blood vessels preserved with wax actually and you can really get a sense of the way the hand articulates. And then some of the older way of preserving organs is through dry specimen preservation with you know injection and drying and varnishing.
Oh yea here we have another about circa 1800 child’s skeleton and I always wondered how they settled the poses for these poor little guys because he almost seems to be standing with his arms up in the air and his torso open, it’s very expressive. Like a little fellow like this never had a chance at life but in a strange way has a more talent here as a teaching model, so not to be bothered about it but as I said earlier this is – as we enter the pathology hall here, this is Dr. Hill’s classroom and Hannibal Lecter’s kitchen and you know I am playing a nervous hand just now and I am playing Hannibal Lecter in a month in another musical, so it all ties together for me, it’s kind of a theme here.
Here we have a series of wax models of fetal development and some even like oversized models showing the development and kind of natural division of the egg, much enlarged. And it’s very hands-on, they have a lot of preserved slides that you’re actually able to examine through microscope yourself. There is quite a few cases here of tools for amputation which are really grisly when you think that particularly 1700s stuff, they really don’t have anything approaching in modern anesthetic and at best they can just try and [indiscernible] [00:39:29], cut off the blood flow and hold you down and put something between your teeth and just saw away as quickly as possible. I mean some of these things just look like woodworking you know handsaw. The shape of some of the knives is something you really never see for anything except amputation, a lot of very grisly, a colored diagram tier at the time.
This is pretty extraordinary, this is a dissection of an entire adult head from the mid 19th century and it’s been designed in a glass case, kind of lacquered and varnished and prepared with different waxes and mercury injections to show the distribution of facial nerves which is actually a very interesting way to look at. You can really see you know the color code, the white nerves are the main nerves and the smaller branches are colored yellow. And it – I forget where it happens but there is a description here about how the understanding of nerves develops once they understand the difference between the central and autonomic nervous systems, how different parts of your body are controlled by different nervous systems.
I think the science, Lister they are the most famous natives on here in medicine is of course Conan Doyle who actually went to university here and his instructor Joseph Bell who he – principally was the model for Sherlock Holmes, I mean as a case to be made that there were a few other models too but the way Dr. Bell trained his students to look for a disease as you would recognize the face of a friend in a crowd and be able to recognize him instantly and the way he would assess people you know just on first look down to their occupation and their age, where they lived and the different diseases they’ve had really ties in with Sherlock Holmes. And there is a whole exhibition here and a little video of Conan Doyle from the late 20s, talking about it.
Here we are back in Dr. Hill’s territory with cross sections of skulls with preserved fractures and abscesses and different blood clots in the brain. Sometimes just the piece of the skull preserved in alcohol, sometimes a whole cross section of the organ itself. You can just see how severe a lot of these head injuries were and in the days before any kind of meaningful brain surgery, all they could do was examine and after someone was dead you know preserve it for analysis. I mean just the size of this extradural hematoma on this preserved brain here in yellow fluid is – probably the hematoma is probably the size of a pear.
Beth Accamando: And some of these have like the hole drilled.
Merlin: Here you see the evidence of the surgery and the healing and evidence of hematoma inside the brain, evidence of laceration, a cut through the skull. Hernia in the brain, god that’s an unpleasant thought and then of course something that’s not –one of the things I love about this museum is that they present the history surgery very honestly and very openly and they don’t really pussyfoot around the more unpleasant or embarrassing parts of the history. I mean they have quite a few trepanning drills here on display and a fractured skull here with two holes drilled for trepanning. I guess trepanning is still performed for certain kind of operations but they use a power drill now.
Here what does it say here; although this procedure may seem to be a dramatic modern response to relieve raised intracranial pressure, there is evidence from archaeological remains that prehistoric people also performed such procedures. Well that’s true, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s sensible. Oh my god just the size of these bladder and kidney stones is really unpleasant. Some are the size of everything from cherry pits up to large stones we find on the beach, this is calculus from the bladder, it’s the size of about a billiard ball and there is a whole display here on the treatment and removal of bladder and kidney stones. Bladder calculi which is you know something that’s treatable now, but it caused terrible suffering and pain and infection and death in a lot of people we remember now, mostly great creative minds of the 19th century. Many of them were felled by something as small as a kidney stone.
Yeah, this is interesting, skeleton of a woman who underwent an early caesarean section, it’s a fully articulated [indiscernible] [00:45:10] skeleton. And it demonstrates the condition osteomalacia, yeah boy, it’s a really extreme deformity of the rib cage, it’s almost squeezed some of the proportions are inverted whereas its thicker pointing from the center of the back out towards the front and squeezed pinch between the arms. A lot of these deformities of the bone are caused by gross nutritional deficiency that’s better understood now. So you really are going to see these certainly in the developing world, extremely rare but this woman actually underwent a successful caesarian section. They child survived but she died afterwards, so I guess again it wasn’t that entirely successful.
God look at the picture, this is a illustration of an ovarian cystadenoma from 1872 and shows a woman with a benign tumor from her ovary, it’s grown to about two or three times the size of her entire body. Some of the stuff is really quite shocking. And the heart stuff is pretty remarkable, they have preserved aneurysms, preserved arterial aneurysms, all sorts of different aortas in various states of preservation. You can see they have been set in a acrylic block that have a lot of color [indiscernible] [00:46:55] liquid most of it has kind of leeched out. But it’s one of the things when you come here you really have to check the schedule because the pathology hall is still used for exams, I mean it really is part of the schooling of all the students here at the university.
Here we have some uniforms, of different causalities of the Crimean war, something and let’s walk down here. Yeah the part here about military surgery is fascinating because in a sense military service was a great equalizer in a time where society was even more stratified, class divided than it is now almost always in times of war. Men from all classes had to serve and even if you were in the officer class it was no guarantee you weren’t going to have some gruesome battlefield injury. So it was - the value of surgeons on the battlefield was immense and your chances of survival from even, what we would now think of as a really simple injury, were pretty slim if there was any chances of infection.
Here we have a few examples of musket balls preserved in amputated legs. Here is a skull with a very deep saber cut from the Battle of the Pyramids in 1788, quite a few fractured bones with pieces of musket ball and other ordinances from the Battle of Waterloo. A skull with a musket ball entry and exit wound.
Beth Accamando: It’s pretty impressive that they were conscientious enough to save a lot of this.
Merlin: Yeah, and something that you don’t see there is a separate gallery of the paintings but they have also especially the era before photography, they have a large collection enough. Rather depressing paintings of the progression of wounds and infections on the battlefield here for instructor purposes. I mean this is not the kind of art anybody would want to hang in their home and a lot of it, there is a whole story behind it like this musket ball wound in this soldier’s upper arm and its humorous that in this sketch the apparently [indiscernible] [00:49:27] nature of the wound is represented. In this sketch in oil the apparently [indiscernible] [00:49:32] nature of the wound is represented, through such a wound however the finger can be introduced; and just think doctors were sticking their fingers at wounds without washing their hands, I mean and they are writing about it right.
So through such a wound however the finger can be introduced and if the bone be shattered and in this instance jagged points of the fragments will be felt all around. If the observation made to be is that bone is broken we don’t have to amputate but when it’s a compound fracture and fragments are sticking through the skin, he is a candidate for amputation and I’m pretty sure this guy did have his entire arm amputated later. Hey, look at the sketch in oil of the state of arm, I mean officer two years after gunshot fracture. And the poor man still has his arm but his suffering was terrible [indiscernible] [00:50:22] infections, I guess this is about 1820s. It’s the Battle of [indiscernible] [00:50:29].
Here is a beautiful collection of hand decorated porcelain dishes that were used for bloodletting, so a lot of that in the history of the city. Here is an interesting stuff about army, naval service, this is pretty wild down here. This is a preserved tattooed chest of a sailor, I am trying to remember if it says exactly where he is from but it looks like – god it might even be the 17th century sailing vessel with snakes and birds and a beautifully articulated and designed ship on it and the color and pigment is really in quite good repair, quite good preservation.
Yeah this is pretty shocking, this is a rather extensive skull wound of a gunshot at Waterloo, which if you can believe it the patient survived this injury for many years. And it looks like there is a chunk of bone about the size of an apple removed from the upper forehead through to the top of the scalp. I mean it’s very jagged so this poor fellow was going through life of – large hole in the skull for quite a while. It’s amazing what the human being can survive. I almost feel embarrassed to comment on the stuff because I just feel like I am going to expose my ignorance. I’m really only a layman and I won't say enthusiast but just someone who is you know interested in the history of medicine and particularly medical field practice and military service.
Yeah here we get to more modern kinds of injuries, some rather gruesome examples of amputated feet suffering from trench foot and gangrene, really kind of interesting cross sections of rather cleanly preserved lungs in liquid but still lot of color, suffering from a gas gangrene, a kind of injury – just a horrible lingering injury to the lungs caused by mustard gas. This is one of the most I think moving specimens here is the gunshot wound which entered the skull through wound in the left side of the nose and a large piece of the man’s face has been preserved. And you can really get a sense of the character of the man because I mean he still has his moustache and eyebrows and eye lashes and the pigment of his skin, it’s about rectangular sized section of the face from above the eyes to just below the upper lip and its stitched but it shows the entry of a terminal wound through his nose.
Yeah and this is something you see a lot here donor unknown which is a polite way of saying I mean who knows that this man had any intention of giving up his body for medical science but it’s a pretty profound contribution. And one that you can see even if you can't come here, the catalogue that they sell just the Surgeons Hall history which is an overview of the history of the hall with a lot of pictures as they are more unique and / or historically significant specimens is definitely worth owning.
It is rather shocking piece of the skull from a World War I, okay that’s got to be a shell wound, Nazi’s gunshot, it’s a large gunshot wound that went through the top of the skull and caused I am sure terrible swelling and then he had to do a trepanation. So I mean the gunshot wound is about the size of a silver dollar or maybe the gigantic hole is the gunshot wound and the trepanation is the smaller hole, it’s kind of hard to tell. But a lot of the skin and even the hair on the scalp is preserved. Yeah the field surgical sets from the First World War are pretty remarkable and then in a lot of ways it’s not that different from surgical tools today, though how they would have kept them sterile and cauterized I can't imagine especially in such grim conditions.
Anterior portions of a cerebral hemisphere, is a preserved brain with severe gunshot wound from the first World War, a man who died a couple of days after the wound but you can actually see preserved in the path of the bullet chunks of bone that had become lodged in his brain, caused bleeding, pretty vivid and still full of color. And a lot of these preserved wounds here from the First World War show very clearly, the nature of the wound as an entire preserve stomach here in liquid. That has a long white rod showing the entry and exit of the bullet that presumably contributed to the fatal wound. I’ve a kidney here that’s preserved in color but black with preserved hemorrhage. This is an interesting example of a cross section of a lower leg showing the effect of gas gangrene on tissue, nowhere near the lungs and it’s rather remarkable effect on the whole body.
Yeah the skull here, it shows pretty clearly the effect of high explosive shell, which is really a very different kind of wound than a entry of a bullet. It’s almost like someone set off an explosion right by the skull, very jagged.
Beth Accamando: Why don’t you explain what you’re seeing on third floor?
Merlin: Well, by the way the gallery here is quite beautiful example of – gosh what is this like Georgian architecture, it’s beautiful skylights and has alcoves with different themes for medical display where the second floor or I guess they would call the first floor here is absolutely just crammed full of cases of pathological specimens. A lot of the jars don’t even have lids and that’s not open to the public, it’s a whole vast bulk of the collection that I think is very specifically used for medical students and hopefully you will get to look up there tomorrow because they don’t really let people up there, it’s very special.
Interesting case here that has the growth of the fetal skeleton and it has a fetus through all the different stages of development. And it’s funny, I think it kind of shows the bias of the era. I am not sure when most of these specimens are dated from but they are all articulated and standing and of course you don’t understand the way fetuses develop that’s not the way they would look I mean if they were either miscarried or aborted or however or still born I mean you’re not going to see a fetus in a standing position.
But I think it kind of shows the prejudice at the time is we like to see our skeletons looking the way we look. Yeah this selection of skulls here is quite remarkable for the deformities and the --. I think some genetic disorders were particularly related to extreme malnutrition, thing you just very, very rarely see now. Hydrocephalus skulls where the cranium is almost looks inflated like a balloon to I’d say three – four – five- six – seven times its normal size. And then some of the more perhaps part of their I guess early surgical history is pre and post operative facial casts in wax and plaster of a facial tumor by Dr. Lister. Oh, he’s I mean the life stories of a lot of the doctors involved with this place are quite remarkable, he was really popular and quite brilliant but figure in 1834 this facial tumor that has swollen on the side of this woman’s face to almost the entire size of her face. I think it’s quite close, it’s really extreme, a simple injury that just swelled into a grotesque oversized tumor. He successfully removed from her and then we have the casting to the right of her face post surgery as it heals plus a separated cast of the tumor which is pretty shocking. It is bigger than her brain.
Now I shouldn’t get too excited about it because it doesn’t say how long she survived after the operation. Okay this is interesting, some of the collections that have come. Here this is [indiscernible] [01:00:10] collection just a number of preserved pieces of amputated legs mostly with the musket balls actually still stuck in the bone either lodged in there or preserved in position, really showing the nature of the injury. And you can see the various attempts of the bone to heal itself before you know amputation was called for. A lot of musket ball injuries and pieces of preserved skull, some evidence of trepanning holes.
One of the most interesting pieces of forensic pathology here is the preserved series of specimens from a murder case and unfortunately they pulled down the description but it’s in the printed catalogue. And it was a man who had stabbed his wife and killed her, he stabbed her in the heart with a shoemaker’s knife and they have different pieces of it presumably used in the trial before they were donated and preserved here. But they have the punctured skin, punctured tissue, the actual knife used to commit the murder and then the preserved punctured heart so –again it is not exactly the right expression but it is a form of living history. You can see you know the criminal act and then it’s the different way it was examined and preserved and used for the trial and then the way it’s been preserved for a less anatomical display but to show the way particularly early days of forensic pathology.
You know it really is emotional being here. It is an amazing collection, it’s not that popular museum, it’s a fairly inexpensive museum. It is only five pounds to come visit but you really are overwhelmed with a sense of not just sacrifice but just the individual tragedy of a lot of the people on display here because for most of human history and most of the 500 years there has been a [indiscernible] [01:02:26] College Of Surgeons a simple injury, a simple infection could kill you or disfigure you or cause you to suffer just terribly so you know we at the late 20th early 21st century so much of what we take for granted is just a blip in the scale of human history.
Just the ability to have a wound dressed the ability to have something a broken bone or a cut on the skin not end up costing you a limb or your life. Also I should say the really – I mean I don’t say lightly but the gruesome selection of preserved cross sections of different cancers of all different parts of the body is the most cautionary thing I have ever seen as an ex smoker I don’t think I could ever pick up a cigarette again. I mean it is one thing looking at a picture on a pack of cigarettes but actually seeing large pieces of preserved cancer will make you think twice.
It’s funny you know visiting here is an emotional experience and for the characters I play it isn’t you know for Dr. Hill as a neurosurgeon and autopsy performer he might as well be sawing a piece of wooden half, he absolutely has no nostalgia or feeling for a dead body and I don’t think that’s necessarily because he’s a sociopath, I mean he is. I think people who work with the dead there must be a level of detachment you form at a certain point. You know Steward Gordon the director of the Re Animator The musical talks about spending time with the coroner at the county morgue preparing for the movie and just the really kind of almost to an outsider demented sense of humor that coroners and morticians have to develop.
He says they are very happy to see people, they don’t get a lot of people coming to visit them, so they love having visitors and they really are pretty jocular and light hearted about what they do and I suppose in a sense you would have to be. I mean guys who read in the catalogue of the Surgeons museum, it’s a beautiful catalogue because it’s not just the history and it’s not just a bunch of gory pictures its poetry – modern and historic poetry on the subject of medicine and reflections of students in a time gone by and modern students and one of the students writes a recently as the early 80s in your basic anatomy class they are passing around a brain without gloves and you are sticking your fingers at it and feeling it and that’s the way they dealt with dead bodies which in the age of modern disease is really hard to believe.
I am sure they still pass out brains or I think you probably have to wear some kind of gear to handle them but yeah --.
Beth Accamando: Thanks for listening to the KPBS cinema junkie podcast. Jesse Merlin can be seen later this month in the new film “Helen Keller Versus Night Wolves” a horror film designed to be bad by the maestro of modern bad cinema Ross Patterson, the film will be streaming live on Halloween on Dread Central, so check it out. Merlin also played Werewolf Hitler for Patterson in FTR American Badass and keep alert for Re Animator the Musical because it has a way of well reanimating.
Remember to check back each Friday in October for a horror themed edition of the cinema junkie podcast. You can also go back and check out last week’s episode featuring Clive Barker. Coming up will be a discussion of psychology in horror with the Baba Duet, a behind the scenes look at the Re Animator the Musical and in Audio Assay on the first films that scared people.
So till our next film flicks I’m Beth Accomando, your resident cinema junkie. Please subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and help us out by leaving a review. The podcast is only a few months old and we rely on your word of mouth to help us build a larger audience. Thanks again for listening.
Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place