skip to content

Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience


by Alexandra Ion

An “exploded” skull gazes from the dark, through the protective glass dome. Next to it, an early 20th century woman’s deformed foot in a jar and a syphilitic cranium hold stories, which remind us that the teaching of anatomy, dissection and the study of bodies have played a central role as part of the medical training in Cambridge since mid-16th century. They are also the remnants of what used to be one of the largest anatomical collections during the 19th century Europe. Its history starts in the late 18th century, when professor’s Busick Harword’s efforts led to the foundation of an anatomical museum comprising his dissections. His endeavour was part of the wider efforts at the University of Cambridge throughout the 18th and early 19th century to formalise medical education, from the appointment of the first professor of anatomy in England in 1707, to the introduction of regular and compulsory anatomical lectures in the early 19th century. The collection then grew to become one of the richest in Europe during the 19th century, its biography at the time being tied to three anatomy professor’s names: William Clark F.R.S. (1817-65)- who acquired wax models from Calanzuoli of Bologna, specimens and entire collections, such as that of Brooke’s museum, or the 2000 specimens James Macartney’s collection from Trinity College Dublin-, Sir George Humphry (1866-1883), and Alexander Macalister (1884-1916). At that time, the collections occupied the dodecagonal galleries which dominated the anatomical building found at the corner of Downing and Corn Exchange Streets, an aspect suggestive of their importance. During the first decades of the 20th century, the anatomist and anthropologist W.L.H. Duckworth further enlarged the collection. Nowadays, most of the former collections are part of the Duckworth Collections, currently housed in the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, University of Cambridge.

In order to understand the creation and use of this anatomical collection, one needs to place it in the wider context of the creation and use of display installations centred on the human body in the 18th century, and especially during the 19th century, displays which enforced, constructed and made available anatomical knowledge. Reflecting an interest in comparative anatomy, such collections were designed to reveal and document the deviant and the typical human forms; bodies were dissected, defleshed or preserved in jars, having their contours exposed through representations that took multiple forms: wax casts, drawings, and later – photographs. The collections of the Hunterian Museum in London, of the Museum of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, or of the Leiden University Medical Centre’s Anatomical Museum, alongside many more throughout Europe and the USA are illustrative for these anatomical universes centred on the (dead) human body.

A collection such as that of the Museum in the Cambridge Anatomy School is still extremely important today, relevant not only for continuing medical training, but also for the insights it can provide in the history of medicine and of medical institutions, and for understanding the perspectives on the human body that have been central to their development. It is the aim of this virtual museum to bring this closer to the contemporary audiences.


References used

  • Berkowitz, C. 2013. Systems of display: the making of anatomical knowledge in Enlightenment Britain. The British Journal for the History of Science 46 (3): 359-387
  • Ion, A. 2015. Breaking down the body and putting it back: displaying knowledge in the ‘Francisc I. Rainer’ anthropological collection. Martor. The Museum of the Romanian Peasant Anthropology Review 20, 25-49
  • Knoeff, R., and Zwijnenberg, R. (eds.) 2015. The Fate of Anatomical Collection. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing
  • Mirazon Lar, M.  2011. A Brief History of the Duckworth Collections. LCHES.
  • Pratt, C.W.M. 1981. The history of Anatomy in Cambridge- a brief study. Anatomy School, Cambridge.