The Royal College of Surgeons of England boasts unrivalled collections of human and non-human anatomical and pathological specimens, models, instruments, painting and sculptures that reveal the art and science of surgery from the 17th century to the present day. Read on to find out about the individual collections’ history, highlights and unique treasures.
Curatorial and Research enquiries:
Due to the closure of the RCS England main building for major redevelopment until late 2020, it will not be possible to provide complete research access to museums’ collections which will be held in storage throughout this period and beyond into late 2021 when the museums reopen.
Collections and curatorial enquiries will have a longer response time as our curatorial teamwork towards the redesign of the museum spaces and the redisplay of the collections.
Image requests will continue to be dealt with, but only if the request concerns an existing image as we have no facility to provide new photography of collections.
Online search facilities will continue to be available through our online catalogue, Surgicat, which covers museums and archives collections.
The Hunterian Collection
The Hunterian Museum's history
In 1799 the UK government purchased the collection of the surgeon and anatomist John Hunter FRS (1728-1793). It was placed in the care of the Company (later the Royal College) of Surgeons. Hunter's collection of around 15,000 specimens and preparations formed the nucleus of one of the greatest museums of comparative anatomy, pathology, osteology and natural history in the world.
The Hunterian today
The Hunterian Collection today contains approximately 3,500 specimens and preparations from John Hunter's original collection. The collection still includes many of Hunter's most famous specimens, including those showing his successful ligation of the femoral artery for popliteal aneurysm and his experiments on collateral circulation. Other specimens demonstrate Hunter's extensive and varied researches on subjects such as bone growth, transplantation and freemartins.
Many specimens are associated with other significant figures, such as Joseph Banks, who supplied Hunter with many items; King George III and Queen Charlotte, for whom Hunter prepared a selection of specimens for the royal collection at Kew; and Edward Jenner. Also included in the collection is the skeleton of Charles Byrne, the 'Irish Giant'.
The College's Museum Collection also contains about 2,500 specimens acquired after 1799. Many specimens were prepared or collected by the conservators of the museum, such as Richard Owen, John Quekett, William Flower and Arthur Keith.
Other items that are part of this collection are a set of four anatomical tables prepared for the diarist John Evelyn in Padua in 1646, as well as scientific and surgical instruments belonging to Joseph Lister, one of the pioneers of antiseptic surgery.
Also held are wax anatomical models prepared by Joseph Towne in the nineteenth century and corrosion casts made by David Tompsett in the 1950s.
The Odontological Collection
The Odontological Collection contains an extensive array of skulls, jaws and teeth from humans and hundreds of species of animals. These show normal dental anatomy and a wide range of dental pathologies. The collection also contains post-cranial skeletal remains, both human and animal, as well as dental casts, dentures and prostheses and dental instruments.
The Odontological Collection is rich in material of historical importance, including:
- Sir John Tomes' collection of human jaws and skulls of known sex and age at death and his pathological specimens;
- Sir Charles Tomes' collection of 1,800 microscope slides illustrating dental development in many species;
- William Cattlin's preparations of the maxillary antrum (the sinus just below the cheekbone);
- Seven preparations made by Alexander Nasmyth in about 1839, illustrating 'Nasmyth's membrane';
- A collection of skeletal remains, teeth and microscope slides of humans and other primates prepared by William Osman-Hill.
- Other items of interest include teeth retrieved from soldiers on the battlefield of Waterloo, a necklace of human teeth brought from the Congo by the explorer Henry Morton Stanley and a denture belonging to Sir Winston Churchill.
The Breedon and Polhill collections
The Odontological Collection was extended in the post-war period with the acquisition of two collections of Anglo-Saxon human remains; one from a cemetery in Breedon-on-the Hill, Leicestershire and the other from Polhill, Kent. The Breedon collection was used by AEW Miles to develop a system for the aging of human remains on the basis of tooth wear.
The Polhill collection is currently housed at Anglia Polytechnic University but is still available for study by arrangement with the Hunterian Museum and APU. Please contact the museum for further information by calling 020 7869 6560 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Historical Surgical Instrument Collection
The first recorded donations of surgical instruments to the College museum took place in 1816, just three years after the opening of the museum. Today, the College has an extensive collection of about 7,000 historical surgical and dental instruments. These include instrument sets dating back to the 17th century, as well as a large number of instruments from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The collection contains instruments used, modified or donated by a number of famous surgeons including Benjamin Brodie, William Fergusson and William Macewen.
Joseph Lister's surgical instruments
Among the most important instruments and scientific apparatus on display are those of Joseph Lister (1827-1912). They include some of Lister's prototype carbolic sprays and samples of the catgut ligatures which he developed, as well as his microscope and glass vessels used in his experiments on fermentation.
Material that is not on display is held in our reserve collections and is available for use for teaching or research. These collections include:
The Hunterian Collection (RCSHC)
The original collection created by the Museum’s founder John Hunter (1728-1793) which dates from the mid to late 18th century. Upon his death in 1793, Hunter had amassed a collection of over 14,000 specimens used for surgical training in his personal museum and school in Leicester Square.
As a result of an incendiary bomb blast in May 1941, the Museum now holds just over 3,000 original Hunterian specimens. Research or photography of Hunterian Collection material must be approved by The Board of Trustees of the Hunterian Collection. For more details, read the Museum and Archives Research Policy.
The Hunterian Museum Collection (RCSHM) –This collection is comprised mainly of wet specimens acquired after the Hunterian Collections’ transfer to the Royal College of Surgeons. Material in this collection follows the same categorisation system used in the original Hunterian Collection and is based around biological processes such as reproduction and digestion.
Many specimens in this collection were prepared by famous conservators of the Museum such as William Clift (1775-1849), Sir Richard Owen (1804- 1892), and Sir William Henry Flower (1831-1899). The collection demonstrates the close links between natural history and comparative anatomy in the 20th century.
The Odontological Collection (RCSOM)
The Collection contains over 10,000 human and animal specimens all of which are derived from cranial aspects of the skeleton. Approximately 3,000 objects consist of human cranial material, ranging in development stage from foetus to edentulous adult. Originally conceived as a dental teaching collection, this resource now holds specimens displaying pathologies from malignant neoplasms to dental caries.
8,000 specimens in the collection are derived from a variety of mammalian, reptilian, avian and fish species. The non-human primate collection alone numbers almost 3,000 and ranges in both species size and geographic origin.
The non-human collection was acquired to form a broad comparative anatomy resource, which demonstrates both the similarities and the differences of dental growth within the animal kingdom as a whole.
Historical Surgical Instrument Collection (RCSIC)
An extensive collection of about 7,000 historical surgical and dental instruments. These include instrument sets dating back to the 17th century, as well as a large number of instruments from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The collection contains instruments used, modified or donated by a number of famous surgeons including Benjamin Brodie, William Fergusson and William Macewen. Among the most important are the instruments and scientific apparatus of Joseph Lister (1827-1912). They include some of Lister's prototype carbolic sprays and samples of the catgut ligatures which he developed, as well as his microscope and glass vessels used in his experiments on fermentation.
Special Collections (RCSSC)
The Special Collections contain decorative and fine art objects including paintings, statuary, busts, furniture, engravings and the Royal College of Surgeon’s regalia and silverware. Art objects from this collection can be seen in the Hunterian Museum as well as around the College building.
The Microscope Slide Collection (RCSMS)
An extensive resource of over 15,000 microscope slides prepared by figures such as the microscopist John Thomas Quekett (1815-1861), the pioneering dentists Sir John Tomes (1815- 1895) and his son Sir Charles Tomes (1846- 1928) as well as the primatologist William Osman Hill (1901-1975).
Royal College of Surgeons Collections Review
In 2015 the Royal College of Surgeons of England Library, Museums and Archives undertook a comprehensive survey of the Designated collections held at the College.
This project, funded by Arts Council England, involved an appraisal of the care, use, condition and significance of all the heritage items on display and in storage at the College. This included 2,274 boxes of archive material, approximately 100,000 volumes of both historic and contemporary books, pamphlets and periodicals in the library collections, and around 54,000 items in the museum collections including human, animal and plant specimens, instruments, microscope slides and artworks.
The data gathered as part of this project will be essential for the success of planned development work anticipated in the next five years, as well as the long-term provision of services and resources that are based on our collections.
Find updates and images of re-discovered treasures on our Twitter account: @HunterianLondon #CollectionsReview