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Bones bones and more bones

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Bones, bones and more bones in Old London Town

By Paul MajendieFri Oct 13, 11:11 AM ET

It's a medical collection that is not for the squeamish. Where else would you get to see the pickled head of a vulture, an Irish giant's skeleton and the diseased tibia of a lion once caged in the Tower of London zoo? The Royal College of Surgeons boasts one of the most bizarre collections in the country which has attracted 55,000 visitors since it was refurbished last year.

The Hunterian Museum is named after the 18th century surgeon John Hunter who became one of the leading medical figures of his generation and transformed the way operations were conducted. The sight that greets you on arrival at the museum is bizarre and surreal -- row upon row of glass jars containing everything from a human foetus to the larynx of a muscovy duck.

A hyena's urethra, a seal's colon, turtle ovaries -- nothing escaped the voracious curiosity of Hunter whose museum of medical oddities was considered so important after his death in 1793 that the government bought it for the Royal College. The tip of a camel's tongue and the remains of a cancerous human testicle might not rank with most tourists as must-see sights in London but the museum can intrigue the layman as much as the medical devotee.

Curator Simon Chaplin takes visitors once a week on free tours with an infectious enthusiasm for Hunter's achievements in training surgeons to master new techniques. He delights in telling in lurid detail how grave robbers -- known in those days as "Resurrection Men" -- would bring corpses in the dead of night to Hunter's house in Leicester Square for him to dissect.
"People turned a blind eye to this illicit trade in bodies," Chaplin said.

Chaplin is fiercely proud of the 4,500 exhibits ranged alongside the walls. "They do look a bit gruesome but overall they do have an aesthetic appeal," he argued. Hunter was a pioneer in winning acceptance for dissection, with leading religious and political figures among the volunteers who happily agreed to post-mortem examinations -- and Hunter himself giving his body for dissection after his death. "The idea of dissection cut across social barriers. It was not frightening or threatening," said Chaplin.
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