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  • Morbid Curiosities: Medical Museums in Nineteenth-Century Britain by Samuel J.M.M. Alberti
  • Laurence Talairach-Vielmas (bio)
Morbid Curiosities: Medical Museums in Nineteenth-Century Britain by Samuel J.M.M. Alberti; pp. 238. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. $84.93 cloth.

If Today the nineteenth century remains famous for being a culture of display, it was also a time when the medical marketplace developed. Samuel Alberti’s Morbid Curiosities lifts the veil on the construction of medical museums in the nineteenth century, showing us how diseased body parts were preserved and exhibited, and tracing their circulation as commodities. In [End Page 233] doing so, Alberti’s book makes explicit how medical museums functioned as significant illustrations of the links between science and culture, and of the cultural construction of (medical) science. The book shows how the material construction and display of disease in the nineteenth century took part in the development of material culture, and it analyzes the gradual dehumanization of exhibited body parts.

The study opens by considering pathological collections and the development of pathological anatomy (especially in the first half of the century), as exemplified by the work of William Hunter (1718–1783) and John Hunter (1728–1793) in Britain or Marie François Xavier Bichat (1771–1802) and Théophile Laënnec (1781–1826) in France—works that influenced many anatomists (chapter 2). Pathology did not reach a professional critical mass in England until late in the century, unlike in Germany, for instance, where pathologists following in the footsteps of Rudolph Virchow (1821–1902) held prestigious, recognized positions; individual British anatomists constituted their collections despite the lack of a large professional community. Among the one hundred pathological collections in the nineteenth century, Alberti mentions a few in London (those of the Hunter brothers, Joshua Brooke, Aston Key, and Edward Grainger, for example, with showmen and teaching hospitals such as St. Bartholomew’s playing a significant role too). He also looks at collections in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dublin, and Manchester. As he explains, anatomical collections often occupied liminal or interstitial spaces between the world of the home and the anatomy school (typical examples being the Hunter or Joseph Jordan collections). Gradually, proprietary medical schools, hospitals, and royal colleges absorbed these collections, and buildings were erected to house them.

The organization within the collections often juxtaposed the pathological and the normal, as Bichat advised, and even zoological specimens were to be found alongside the human fragments. Moreover, with the rise of ethnology, specimens of different human races (particularly skulls) were also exhibited. The idea of the elaboration of a dividual body throughout the century is then tackled in chapter 3, which examines the material and museological implications of the movements of human remains and the mechanics of nineteenth-century acquisition, leading to the fragmentation and commodification of the body. Alberti goes back to the history of dissection, explaining how the conception of dissection as the ultimate punishment for criminals must be read in relation to early Christian attitudes and the need for the body to remain complete for resurrection. Furthermore, the dismembering of the body and selling of the parts partook of the nineteenth-century objectification of nature: “To anatomize was to atomize” (73). Alberti’s analysis of the fragmentation of the body follows in the footsteps of studies such as Elizabeth Wanning Harries’s The Unfinished Manner: Essays on the Fragment in the Late-Eighteenth Century (1994), Linda Nochlin’s The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity (1994), and D.A. Hillman and Carla Mazzio’s (eds.) The Body in Parts: Fantasies of Corporeality in Early [End Page 234] Modern Europe (1997), which explore the impact and significance of human fragments. The cultural appeal of remains, like ruins, explains the interest in and the legitimization of collections and exhibitions of human remains. But Alberti goes a step further by highlighting how medical museums were anchored as much, if not more, in industrial culture. Morbid specimens provided by hospital wards, as exchangeable goods, were seen as equivalent to manufactured goods for consumption; the patient’s identity was more often than not erased and subsumed under that of the anatomist or collector.

The subsequent chapters...


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