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The Surgeons' Hall in Edinburgh is a cornucopia of historical body horror and scientific marvels

By Kayleigh Donaldson
Surgeons Hall Edinburgh

If you’ve ever visited Scotland’s capital city, then the chances are you’ve taken in most of the major tourist sites. You’ve probably visited Edinburgh Castle, then walked down the Royal Mile to check out Holyrood Palace and the Scottish Parliament. Maybe you went to the National Museum of Scotland too, or took a bus to Leith to check out the Royal Yacht Britannia. Perhaps you indulged in the city’s penchant for the dark with a ghost tour through Greyfriars Kirk. Edinburgh is full of things to see and do, and you’ll never be bored by what you see. However, when friends from around the world come to visit me in the motherland and ask for more esoteric tourist experiences, I always take them to my favorite place in Edinburgh (or at least my favorite that isn’t serving cocktails).

Located on Nicolson Street, just around the corner from the university, the Surgeons' Hall is home to some of Edinburgh's most fascinating and macabre history. Inside, you can find everything from preserved segments of tattooed skin to Victorian dental equipment to a femur with a calcified cyst the size of a grapefruit attached to it to a book made from a murderer’s skin. In many ways, the Surgeons' Hall exemplifies what makes Edinburgh so wonderful with that potent mixture of history, culture, innovation, and sheer grossness.

The Surgeons' Hall is the HQ for the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, which dates back to the 1500s. The Museum at Surgeons' Hall dates from 1699. Visitors were invited to visit their collection of "natural and artificial curiosities," and even Daniel Defoe of Robinson Crusoe fame declared the museum to be a "chamber of rarities." Primarily, the building has served as a hub for the College in the teaching of anatomy and surgery. Edinburgh was something of a hub of medical innovation in the 19th century, with some of the most influential figures in surgery getting their start in the city. Nowadays, the most well-known aspect of Edinburgh's anatomical history can be found in the infamy of Burke and Hare, the murderers who sold bodies to Dr. Robert Knox, who worked as a conservator at the museum. After his death by hanging on the charges of murder, William Burke was dissected at the college and his skeleton remains on display there, as well as his death mask and a pocketbook made from his skin.

The Surgeons' Hall has played a part in many other historical and cultural events. A young medical student named Arthur Conan Doyle was the assistant to the president of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, Dr. Joseph Bell, who later became a defining influence in Conan Doyle's most iconic work of fiction, Sherlock Holmes. The Hall was also the scene of a major riot when the College's first group of female medical students from the University of Edinburgh attempted to sit their anatomy exams in November 1870. A crowd, partly comprised of male medical students, tried to stop them from entering the building to complete the exam. They were pelted with trash and mud and were shut out of the Hall until one sympathetic male student helped them in. The seven women at the heart of this harassment garnered nationwide headlines over the course of their studies, as well as big-name supporters like Charles Darwin. Eventually, they would even be denied the right to graduate and qualify as doctors, as the university felt they never should have been allowed access in the first place. The riot and their cause helped to shine a national spotlight on the rights of women to a university education.

You’ll find out about all these things when you go to the Surgeons’ Hall and much more. But let’s be honest: The thing that piques your interest the most about this fascinating place is the disgusting stuff. When I was younger and found out this place existed, it became my new crusade, the place I simply had to see with my own eyes. How could I not be intrigued by a place that promised such unabashed horrors? Of course I wanted to see the skeleton with rickets! Hell yeah, show me the bones with bullets lodged in them! What’s that, a four-foot-long tapeworm preserved in formaldehyde? Sign me up! In a city built on morbidity and the darkness of its violent past, the Surgeons’ Hall feels like the place you can most proudly admit your obsession with the taboo.

Since the Museum reopened in 2015 following renovations, the space now exhibits twice the number of items as it did before, meaning visitors can spend far more time around preserved organs and cancerous tumors in jars. And yes, there are plenty of those. The pathology section of the museum is divided up by branches of medicine, from orthopedic surgery to gynecology and much more. A strong stomach is most certainly needed for this visit (although there are plenty of stomachs on display too, in various states of health). As much as the experience satisfies your basest instincts for the disgusting, the sight of countless people’s organs, bones, and skin on display, devoid of the body and soul they were once a part of, is also oddly humbling. The history of science and medicine is built on the bodies of millions, often without their permission and seldom without proper credit being given. The marvels of science are extensively documented, but the subtitle to all of this is the suffering, the pain, and the single-minded determination required for an entire profession to reduce human beings to case studies or specimens. You can gawk over dismembered limbs for hours and pretend it has nothing to do with the real world, but when you see a preserved fetus? There’s no denying what you’re looking at.

Still, I find myself returning to the Surgeons’ Hall every time I go to Edinburgh. Whenever friends come to visit, this is the place I take them to after we’ve exhausted the usual tourism trails, although not all of them find it as gripping an experience as I do. I’ve seen those exhibits countless times and they still leave me dumbfounded with awe and a vague sense of existential crisis. It’s a crime nerd’s dream, a horror lover’s most morbid fantasies made flesh, and a potent reminder that the long history of medical and scientific innovation is paved with the bodies of the unknown.

For more information on the Surgeons' Hall, visit their website.

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