Simon Chaplin

The grisly nature of 18th Century surgery has come under the microscope at a talk in Lichfield.

Simon Chaplin, the Royal College of Surgeons’ Musuem Director, was the latest special guest of the Lichfield Science and Engineering Society (LSES).

As well as describing the developments in surgery through the period, he also spoke of the many anatomical specimens kept in glass bottles in the museum.

During the 18th Century, the only bodies legally available for dissection were those of hanged criminals and an aspiring surgeon had to hope for a high crime rate or to rely on the activities of the bodysnatchers.  Anatomists such as John and William Hunter gave lectures and demonstrations in their specially extended homes to students who sometimes lived on the premises, often in uncomfortable proximity to the current cadaver. 

Since refrigeration was primitive, demonstrations were confined to the cooler months between October and May but the conditions in which the anatomists and students worked were still so bad that several died of infections.

Some anatomists became expert in preserving interesting specimens, or “preparations” and set up exhibitions which became a fashionable venue for the general public.  When surgery became more respectable and the Royal College was established in 1800, John Hunter’s and other collections became the basis of the Hunterian Collection, a “virtual tour” of which is available at

Brian Hammond, chairman of the Society, said:

“Simon presented a potentially grisly subject in a very entertaining and informative manner and the lively discussion period confirmed his audience’s appreciation.  He also cleared up an old mystery – surgeons were originally not university graduates and that’s why when doctors become surgeons, they proudly revert to mister.”

This was the last in the current series of LSES evenings at the Garrick but there is the Festival lecture to look forward to before the next season starts in September.  For more details, visit the LSES website.

Founder of LichfieldLive and editor of the site.