The Rise of Obscene Public Anatomy in Victorian London

Alex de Borba

Alex de Borba

Established in England in 1851, at the height of popular interest in anatomy, Dr Joseph Kahn’s Anatomical and Pathological Museum was intended to show the “wondrous” structure of the body and to warn of the harmful consequences to the health of abuses that “distort or defile” its “beautiful structure”.

Its subsequent decline into a front for the sale of quack remedies for venereal disease damaged the reputation of anatomy museums. After twenty-two years, and several bizarre legal cases, opposition from self-appointed representatives of the medical profession and anti-vice campaigners forced it to close.

The successful prosecution of Kahn’s museum under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 branded all public display of anatomical specimens as potentially obscene. Thereafter, anatomical education was restricted to medical professionals and public anatomy survived only in sideshows. The public anatomical museum has remained, for increasingly outdated reasons, a lost opportunity.

There had been well-known anatomy museums in England since the eighteenth-century. The famous collection amassed by John Hunter (1728–1793) was purchased by the government in 1799 for £15.000 and presented to the Company (later the Royal College) of Surgeons in London.

Although there were many hundreds of visitors, the collection was not open to the public and was viewed mainly by medical men or others who could obtain an introduction. On a smaller scale, metropolitan hospitals and some medical teachers maintained private anatomy collections for their students.

For the London public, there were exhibitions of anatomical waxworks, open to anyone with the price of admission. Guillaume Desnoues’s (1650–1735) detailed full-length anatomical models were brought to London in 1719 to educate and entertain the curious “without exciting the feeling of horror men usually have on seeing corpses”.

Other shows were more sensational; Abraham Chovet (1704–1790), the son of a London wine merchant, advertised in 1733 a model of: “a woman […] supposed opened alive […]” showing the circulation of blood between mother and child with coloured liquids.

Desnoues’s and Chovet’s models ended up in Rackstrow’s public museum in the Strand, which included an “anatomical exhibition” with “a collection of real anatomical preparations” and “a great variety of skeletons”.

Popular interest in anatomy waned in the late-eighteenth-century and Rackstrow’s closed in the late 1780s.

In the 1820s, two things happened that stimulated public interest in matters anatomical. One was, of course, the scandal of the murders committed by Burke and Hare in Edinburgh in 1827/1828, which provoked real or imagined concerns in London and elsewhere. The other was the increasing interest in wax or pasteboard anatomical models as a substitute for real bodies.

In 1828, the word anatomical “turned to gold” and wax modellers again began to stage public exhibitions of their work. Simmons’s waxworks at 167 High Holborn exhibited an “anatomical Samson”, which could be taken apart to reveal the viscera, “with a view to superseding the use of dead bodies”. Alongside it were waxworks of Burke and Hare.

The Edinburgh scandal highlighted the shortage of subjects for dissection and models were presented as a way forward. Although models were never widely accepted as an alternative to dissection for medical student teaching, they made anatomy available to a wider audience: when Signor Sarti’s exhibition, with an anatomical ‘Venus and Adonis’, opened at 27 Margaret Street in 1839, the Athenaeum recommended it to “younger male readers” who wanted to obtain “a few general ideas on the subject of anatomy, which they may do without labour or disgust”.

The study of his models, claimed Sarti, would give the visitor “the power to communicate intelligibly with his medical advisor” and “teach him the absolute necessity of putting implicit faith in those men who have made Anatomy and Physiology the study of their lives.”

In 1851, Joseph Kahn, a 32-year-old “medical doctor” (as he described himself in the census) from Alsace, arrived in London with his pregnant wife and mother-in-law.

Born on January 16th, 1820 in Haguenau, Kahn was a former pupil of Professor Ignaz von Döllinger (1770–1841) in Munich, and had worked with the embryologist Professor Michael Pius Erdl (1815–1848), before setting up his own museum of anatomy in Germany in 1848.

After three years travelling around Germany and Holland, the Kahn family settled in London at 315 Oxford Street, where Joseph opened the Museum of Anatomy and Pathology. This anatomical, surgical and embryological collection comprised specimens preserved in spirits, models in wax and leather, and microscopical preparations, all intended “to present the scientific observer with a general and correct view of the perfect and wonderful structure of the body”.

A representative of the Lancet visited the new museum and was “much gratified” with the exhibition, which included an anatomical Venus.

Of the embryology section he wrote, “[w]e cannot speak too highly”, while in a room “set apart for members of the medical profession” syphilis and gonorrhoea were “very well shown”. Despite this and other favourable reviews, and visits from minor nobility and others of the “haut ton”, the museum failed to yield a profit, even after the price of admission was reduced from two shillings to one shilling and ladies were admitted, separately, to some of the rooms.

Kahn, therefore, embarked on a tour of the North of England, visiting Newcastle upon Tyne, Manchester and Liverpool, and added a “gallery of all nations”, a display of waxworks of the different races of men. There were soon more than 500 exhibits, including some sensational additions such as the “[h]ead and face of a man who fell victim to the demoralising and destructive habit of onanism”.

Such horrors were kept in the room for medical men; the general exhibition was recommended to “families and schools”.

When the museum returned to London, the Lancet noted that it had won “golden opinions” on tour. Kahn published an atlas of embryology, based on the work of his former teacher Professor Erdl, in which he noted with satisfaction that the “greatest interest” had been expressed in “physiological science” and “microscopic embryology”, “even” in the provinces.

One problem that public displays of anatomy had to face in the nineteenth-century was that representations of the sexual organs or of venereal diseases might shock those of a modest temperament. Anatomical Samsons and Venuses were therefore intentionally reminiscent of classical sculptures, a familiar and inoffensive representation of the human form.

In Kahn’s museum, the morbid appearances of sexually transmitted diseases were presented in a separate room ostensibly for medical men, a group who hardly needed to be reminded of them, but in practice, any man or woman who paid was admitted.

When the Lancet expressed concern that “females” were allowed into the museum, especially the medical room, Kahn reassured its readers that on days when ladies were admitted, any models that “could offend the most prudish taste” were removed; and when the Lancet recommended that additional models be taken away, Kahn acquiesced.

When challenged that “females were permitted to inspect the syphilitic models”, Kahn replied that these were “nurses, midwives, and other persons professionally interested”.

Unlike medical schools, public anatomical museums were not a male preserve: in 1854 an “anatomical exhibition” intended for ladies, Madame Caplin’s, opened in Marlborough Street, to illustrate “the evil effects of tight lacing”. The Lancet was satisfied with Kahn’s explanations and continued to recommend his museum.

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