Please enter both an email address and a password.

Welcome to the RCS website. If you do not know your login details, please reset your password using the link below.

Account login

Need to reset your password?  Enter the email address which you used to register on this site (or your membership/contact number) and we'll email you a link to reset it. You must complete the process within 2hrs of receiving the link.

We've sent you an email

An email has been sent to Simply follow the link provided in the email to reset your password. If you can't find the email please check your junk or spam folder and add no-reply@rcseng.ac.uk to your address book.

Frozen in Time

16 Feb 2016

Sam Alberti

Plaster is peculiar stuff. As a chalky powder, heavier than dust, it can pervade a wide area. As a fluid it is mercurial and insubstantial, and could almost pass for milk. In its solid form, it is white yet dull; solid yet brittle. In the modern West, it has been used extensively for a variety of functions, from making statues to setting broken bones to decorating ceilings; and it is exceptionally well suited to creating accurate three-dimensional reproductions.

D.J. Cunningham and H Casciani, head of a 75-year old man. Plaster, before 1892. Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons RCSHM/D 713

Above: D.J. Cunningham and H Casciani, head of a 75-year old man. Plaster, before 1892. Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons RCSHM/D 713.

It is perhaps surprising that among the skeletons and spirit specimens of a medical museum, a plaster object like this retains the capacity to shock. The eyes of this head are slightly open, the jaw slack and the mouth gaping in breathless anguish. The discolouration, aging and grime on the plaster bring into stark relief the wrinkles around the eyes and neck. Among the many life and death masks in museums and art galleries, what is remarkable about this cast is the partial dissection shown on one side. Only thin bars of the skull remain, like walls separating fields on a hill farm.

D.J. Cunningham, Contribution to the Surface Anatomy of the Cerebral Hemispheres (Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, 1892). Plate VIII.This cast was based on an original by Scottish anatomist Professor Daniel John Cunningham (1850-1909). Throughout his career in Dublin and Edinburgh, Cunningham was fascinated by the shape of the skull and brain. Knowing that dissections could only last momentarily, he set out to make a series of casts. In total he had twenty-two human heads like this, which were photographed for his research and included in his Contribution to the Surface Anatomy of the Cerebral Hemispheres(1892).

Left: D.J. Cunningham, Contribution to the Surface Anatomy of the Cerebral Hemispheres (Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, 1892). Plate VIII.

They were also distributed widely by the Dublin firm Casciani & Son. As well as this (one of a pair at the Royal College of Surgeons of England) surviving examples can be found in Edinburgh, Harvard, Liverpool, Melbourne and Otago. In effect, these casts were plaster publications, sent around the world as evidence of Cunningham’s research. This was a common practice in Victorian science and medicine. The continuing popularity of these is a testament to the particular quality of these casts, the way they capture an instant of the dissection process. Although Cunningham took a fortnight on the dissection, the casting was swift: the swift-setting plaster served to freeze time.

Designing Bodies: Models of Human Anatomy from Wax to Plastics, ed. Elizabeth Hallam (London: Royal College of Surgeons, 2015)More about medical models can be found in Designing Bodies: Models of Human Anatomy from Wax to Plastics, ed. Elizabeth Hallam (London: Royal College of Surgeons, 2015).

Sam Alberti, Director of Museums and Archives


Join the discussion

Add your comments to the site using Disqus.

Sign up below by adding a name, email address and password (click on the Discussion box to reveal the 'Name' field). Or log in using your social media profile.

After signing up, you can start commenting and won't have to log in to Disqus again - you don't even need to log in to your RCS account.

Share this page: