Hunterian Museum


Royal College of Surgeons, 35–43 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, WC2A 3PE


020-7869 6560



Opening times:

Tues–Sat 10:00–17:00

How to get there:

Tube: Holborn

Entry fee:


Additional information:


On the first floor of the Royal College of Surgeons’ grand Neoclassical home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the Hunterian Museum re-opened in 2005 after a £3.5million refurbishment. Of the original building, designed by George Dance the Younger in 1813, only the portico survives, with the addition of an extra column after Charles Barry’s complete re-modelling of 1832. Five different galleries now display the College’s extensive collections of pathology and comparative anatomy specimens, as well as paintings, prints and drawings, and artefacts relating to the development of surgical practice since the 18th century.

William Hunter (1718–83) was one of the first to profit from the dissolution of the Barber-Surgeons, and recruited his younger brother John (1728–93) to help with his work. John Hunter, who built up the museum’s core collection, developed theories on the relationship between the body’s structure and function, illustrating his lectures with examples from some of his 15,000 different specimens. He is now considered to be one of the founding father’s of ‘scientific surgery’.

Sir Joseph Banks (1743–1820) and Dr Daniel Solander (1736–82)

Natural History owes much to the friendship between Joseph Banks, son of a Lincolnshire landowner, and Daniel Solander, the son of a Swedish Lutheran pastor. Even as a boy Banks was intensely interested in nature, and especially plants. Solander was a pupil of Linnaeus, sent by his master to England to promote the Linnaean system of classification to botanists there. In 1768 both men accompanied Captain Cook to Tahiti and the South Seas on the Endeavour. There they made important collections of specimens hitherto unknown in Europe, their zeal getting them through the rigours of sea travel and the diet of verminous ship’s biscuit. The maggots, Banks commented, tasted ‘as strong as mustard’, and he claimed to have seen ‘hundreds, nay thousands, shaken out of a single biscuit’. So important were their collections, that after their return Linnaeus suggested naming the newly discovered country (Australia) Banksia. The proposal was not accepted, but a family of Australian plants, the genus Banksia, does bear the name. Botany Bay is also named after Banks and Solander’s activities. While Captain Cook had only seen desolation in that uncharted sound, and voted to name it Stingray Harbour, the two naturalists were captivated by its plant life, and the name Botany Bay is the one that stuck. So taken was Banks with the place, in fact, that when the government began looking for somewhere to establish a penal colony, Banks nominated Botany Bay as the ideal contender. Solander gives his name to the ‘Solander box’, a type of acid-free, soft board container which he devised to transport botanical specimens and keep them from spoiling. Such boxes are still used for storage of books, prints and papers today.

On their return to England, Solander was made keeper of the British Museum, where he catalogued the natural history collections, many of the items bequeathed by himself and Banks. Banks was a trustee of the Museum, and overseer of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. When Cook invited them to join him on his next voyage, on the Resolution, Banks felt unequal to the privations and elected not to accompany him. Solander stood by his friend and chose to remain behind too. The two men went to Iceland, with Solander acting as Banks’s secretary, and where they also made important discoveries. Both men became fellows of the Royal Society, and Banks was its president after 1778.



Tour of the Museum

The Introductory Gallery displays some of the museum’s original artefacts and illustrates the history of the College from its origins in the Barber-Surgeon companies of the 16th century. The four Evelyn Tables presented here are some of the oldest surviving anatomical preparations in Europe. Bought as a curiosity in Italy by the diarist John Evelyn in 1646, these dissections of nerves, veins and arteries pasted onto wooden boards were once important teaching aids. A painted plaster bust by Louis François Roubiliac depicts William Cheselden (1706–85), one of the first anatomy teachers, who published the Anatomy of the Human Body in 1713.

In the middle of the room, from floor to ceiling, the Crystal Gallery presents a dazzling display of the remaining portion of John Hunter’s specimen collection. Around two-thirds of the museum’s collection were destroyed by enemy action on 10th May 1941. Eight state-of-the-art showcases now display over 3,500 specimens preserved in jars of alcohol, or of a more modern formaldehyde-based solution. Specimens injected with dyes were also often pickled in turpentine. As well as providing an important insight into 18th-century science, the gallery also provides challenging subject matter for students of drawing. The skeleton of Charles Byrne (1761–83), the ‘Irish Giant’, who stood 7ft 7in tall, can be seen at the far end.

The one-room Art Gallery displays the College’s striking collection of 18th-century portraits, prints and drawings. It begins with a Portrait of Omai by William Hodges. Omai was brought over from Huahine, near Tahiti, in 1744 by Lt Tobias Furneaux, on HMS Adventure, and placed in the care of Sir Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander. He was presented to George III, and toured around the country in 1776. Also by Hodges are portraits of the Cherokee Indians Richard Justice and Moses Price. They visited London in 1791 accompanying William Augustus Bowles, self-styled commander-in-chief of the Cherokee nation. Next to them hangs Portrait of a Malay Woman by Robert Home. Home was John Hunter’s brother-in-law, who trained under Angelica Kauffman and moved out to India after 1788. Other portraits depict people afflicted with achondroplasia (dwarfism), including the famous small person Count Joseph Boruwiski (1739–1837). He charged curious people a fee to visit him at home, married and had several children of average height. The marble bust of King George III by Francis Chantrey (1781–1841) was commissioned in 1813 to commemorate the Royal Charter granted in 1800.

Perhaps the most celebrated painting in the Hunterian collection is Rhinoceros by the famous horse-portraitist George Stubbs. It is a meticulous depiction of an Indian rhino that had recently been brought back to London. Also by Stubbs are Yak (1791), an animal brought back alive by Warren Hastings, the first British Governor-General of India, later impeached and acquitted. The yak was kept at his estate at Dalesford in Gloucestershire, where the original portrait sill hangs. This version was commissioned in 1791. Other works by Stubbs include his portrait of an albino baboon which was known as the ‘child of the sun’, and some of his sketchings for an atlas on midwifery by John Burton. Equally remarkable are the animal paintings by Jacques-Laurent Agasse (1769–1849), who trained in the studio of David in Paris, under the patronage of Lord Rivers. They include an ibex, a white mule, white antelope and a quagga. Also here is a pencil portrait (1793) of John Hunter by George Dance the Younger, the architect of the first college building and founder member of the Royal Academy. John Hunter published his first book The Natural History of the Human Teeth in 1771. It was illustrated by Jan van Riemsdyk, some of whose original sketches can be seen here, along with a plaster-cast copy of the death mask of Sir Isaac Newton by John Michael Rysbrack.

The Museum after Hunter gallery profiles the work of curators since Hunter, taking in the development of comparative osteology and odontological collections and the effects of the bombing during the Blitz, which reduced the College’s collection of 75,000 specimens by over half. Upstairs, at balcony level, the Science of Surgery is an exhibition looking at the development of surgery as a profession, with its increasingly specialised fields, and displays items from the Lister Collection such as Lister’s examination couch, original antiseptic spray, microscopes and experiment flasks. Displays trace the influence of anaesthetics and antisepsis, up to the development of modern surgical techniques such as ‘keyhole’ surgery and visitors have the opportunity to view videos of operations such as heart and brain surgery.

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Details below are taken from our Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London.  This is a 2005 title, here generally updated for website address and opening times, with useful comments from some of the museums themselves.  More recent information is given in Emily Barber's magisterial new Blue Guide London, "Exceptional update to a classic and useful guide to this amazing city" (Amazon reader review).

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