Royal College of Surgeons Museum review


We have had a review sent in to us by one of our community reporters about his visit to the Royal College of Surgeons Museum at Surgeons’ Hall, Nicolson Street.

One a breezy cold sunny afternoon I met up with Rachel’s group from Number Six and we entered the cool dark building which I had passed countless times and often wished to see inside. But I never did because I am squeamish about skeletons and organs preserved in glass jars. There is safety in numbers so I thought I could go just to admire the fine neo-classical architecture (however I did not have any breakfast beforehand, just a cup of tea).

First you clock in to buy your ticket in the annexe where the new surgery  museum is located. the access is not good as the museum is on several floors and the small elevator is hard to find. The corridors are narrow and there are heavy doors to push open. Wheelchairs are available but they are so low-slung that you can’t see into the displays which are at eye level (someone should design a special mobile chair for museum tours which is more elevated). Later you can cross over into the grand Hall itself which is a meeting space and auditorium as well as the hallowed ground where medics are given their Surgeon’s degree. On the upper balcony you will find the historic collection of skeletons, skulls, various human organs including brains and eyeballs (testicles too) as well as examples of human deformities all preserved in glass jars. This collection was purely a teaching aid for medical students – not a freak show for the public, So I averted my gaze from these horrors and just admired this temple dedicated to the healing skills of the surgeon.

The new wing is actually not too gruesome (for me at any rate) as it mostly consists of interesting historic surgeon’s instruments including amputation saws and curved razor sharp knives for making speedy incisions (before blood transfusion was developed in the 20th century, loss of blood during an operation was a major problem – often fatal). A series of galleries takes you through the history of surgery and there is are-creation of a traditional anatomy lecture theatre complete with corpse – familiar to us from Frankenstein movies. A video shows an actor playing the role of an 18th century Edinburgh surgeon who describes the limited but rapidly expanding understanding of human anatomy and a hologram projected on the “corpse” shows its innards.

We also saw a very interesting mini-exhibition about Franklin’s ill-fated 19th century to the Arctic where his two ships with hundreds of men disappeared without trace. The expedition’s doctor and surgeon had been trained in Edinburgh and his notebooks and diary had been found many years later near the wreck site. Many of the crew had in fact died from vitamin deficiency which was not understood at the time. Also their primitive canned food was affected by lead used to seal the cans so they suffered from lead poisoning as well.

There are displays showing the development of anaesthesia – early experiments with chloroform were conducted in Edinburgh by Simpson, then other gases and soporific drugs were trialled. A highly skilled craft of medical instrument design and manufacture flourished locally – so precise as to be compared to watch-making. You can see a display on the development of dental surgery as well as examples of modern life-saving implants used in heart surgery – the Pacemaker and artificial valves. WHEW!

We later went to the museum-run cafe to enjoy coffee and doughnuts (but the hamburgers are reminded of ulcerated human tongues and the mince was rather brain-like but I suppose it tasted okay.)

G.Hendry – August 2016

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