This post is inspired by the ‘Read This, Watch That’ posts on River City Reading (a great blog that you should check out if you haven’t already). In this post I’m going to give you a quick rundown on a great book I read a while ago and then tell you all about a completely obscure museum I visited while in London that turned out to be a surprise literary point of interest for me.
Read This → The Giant, O’Brien by Hilary Mantel
Published in 1998, The Giant, O’Brien by Hilary Mantel, is a fictionalised account of the life of Charles Byrne (O’Brien in the novel), largely focusing on his time spent in London. Standing at 7ft 7″, Byrne towered above the average man at that time (5ft 7″ on average), hence his nickname, ‘The Irish Giant’. He took advantage of his height, travelling around Britain and displaying himself at fairs for money. He arrived in London in 1782, where curiosities and novelties such as himself were a well received and lucrative business.
It was during this time that he came to the attention of the pioneering surgeon and famed anatomist, John Hunter, who subsequently offered Byrne money for his body when he died. Mantel gives plenty of time to Hunter in her novel, and although he is painted in a less than flattering light, we can also see the brilliance that would see him at the forefront of the surgical profession.
Interspersed throughout the novel are fairy stories as told by O’Brien to his band of followers. These not only serve to break up the intertwined storylines of O’Brien and Hunter, but to also add another layer to the character of the giant, who is shown to be a soulful character with an acute awareness of his own mortality.
While Mantel’s O’Brien and Hunter may not be entirely accurate representations of their real life counterparts, her imagining of what may have happened between them is certainly more than plausible and makes for fantastic reading.
Go There → The Hunterian Museum, London
Charles Byrne declined Hunter’s offer of money for his remains. But due to some underhandedness on the part of people Byrne considered friends, Hunter had his way and today the skeleton of Charles Byrne stands in a glass cabinet in London’s Hunterian Museum, located in the Royal College of Surgeons.
Also housed in the Museum are thousands of human and animal anatomical specimens, which Hunter prepared himself and utilised to learn how the human body worked. On his death in 1793, his collection was made up of approximately 14,000 specimens which were eventually incorporated into a larger collection of around 65,000 items. However much of this collection was lost after the College was hit by bombs during WWII, and today the remainder of Hunter’s original collection (approximately 3000 pieces) are housed in the Crystal Gallery in the centre of the museum.
I also learnt about the development of the surgical profession, and how it has developed through the last couple of centuries. Once upon a time if you had a life-threatening condition that required surgery, you would probably have been better off sticking it out as you were more likely to die during or after the operation. If it wasn’t the hacking off of the offending appendage that did you in, it would either be the shock or infection. There was also an interesting area of the museum that focused on the development of plastic surgery, which came to prominence at the outbreak of WWI and helped many severely injured soldiers integrate back into society, despite their injuries.
There is also a large collection of surgical instruments and it was interesting to see how they have changed throughout the centuries. Let’s just say I’m really glad I live in a time in which I don’t have to be awake while my leg gets hacked off with a saw. And if you’re into seeing obscure items belonging to the famous, you can rest your eyes upon Sir Winston Churchill’s upper denture, which was specifically designed to maintain his lisp, along with a bunch of healthy and not so healthy body parts belonging to famous historical figures.
It’s not a museum for everyone, but it was by far the most interesting place I visited while on holiday. I learnt a lot, I got to see some gross but cool things, and it was a nice change from all the paintings and statues I had been seeing at all the other museums. It was also free entry – you can’t go wrong with learning stuff for free, but I can recommend (as with most of the other museums I visited) hiring an audioguide because you can learn so much more. As there were human remains on display, there was a no photos policy (not that I would want to photograph a lot of the stuff anyway), but if you’re at all interested you can check out the Museum in greater depth on the Hunterian Museum website.