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'This is not a temple of death' - the Gordon Museum

One of the less well-known places around the College is theGordonMuseumof pathology, on Guy’s Campus.

It might seem a macabre collection of diseased bits of the human body, squeezed together in Victorian display cases. The Museum has a large and growing collection of approximately 8,000 pathological specimens.

But as Museum curator Bill Edwards explains, ‘this is not a temple of death, it’s about the business of life. Many people have been cured because of the teaching and training that goes on in the Museum.’

The Museum is a teaching collection, helping with the training of generations of medics, and providing the evidence on which changes in medical practice are based.

‘We have some precious things, but we use all these things for teaching. The Museum exists to teach. Nothing is useless. And this usefulness is the criterion for specimens being added to the collection and for us keeping them’.

The museum includes the first stethoscope ever used inBritain, and the Joseph Towne collection of impeccably accurate wax and wooden models of parts of the body. The Museum has collections that formerly belonged to famous Guy’s alumni who have given their name to medical conditions, including Hodgkin, Addison and Bright. And it has material taken from the first operations of their kind in the world. ‘We have surgeons who come from all over the globe, who almost cry when they see what we have’.

Bill is one of the few museum curators who regularly turns people away from his institution. The Museum is open only to the ‘medical public’ – doctors, dentists, surgeons, nurses and physiotherapists who need to see the collections. Sometimes the police and fire brigade use them for training in forensics. Sometimes medical historians and medical artists are allowed in, as are all alumni with a medical or biomedical background. But not the general public.

And unusually for a curator, Bill is personally responsible for the material in his care. Under the Human Tissue Act, which regulates the handling of all material from the dead and the living, penalties for non-compliance with the Museum’s licence include two years imprisonment. ‘I didn’t sign up with a song in my heart’, says Bill.

 I didn’t sign up with a song in my heart.

Getting specimens from living donors is easy – ‘I never ask them directly, or their next of kin.

Surgeons do that for me. And people are often very grateful to have a diseased part of the body removed, so they’re happy to donate to us’.

When someone has died, approaching the next of kin for a specimen is of course very difficult. Informed consent is key, and Bill is currently working on a consent form that can be used under these very difficult circumstances. ‘We just try our best to be open about what we do – it’s all about being honest’.

The Gordon Museum collection is one of the largest of its kind in the world, with specimens going back to 1608, mostly from Guy’s and St. Thomas’s Hospitals. Inevitably though it is incomplete. ‘Even in three centuries, you don’t get everything’. And some conditions can present in many different ways, so the Museum needs a number of different specimens. ‘We’re not looking to have the biggest collection for its own sake. We can’t justify that legally or morally.’

 Even in three centuries, you don’t get everything.

Does Bill have a wish-list, of specimens he needs to fill gaps in the collection? ‘Degenerative diseases are a growth area as the population gets older - we need more specimens there. Then there’s infectious diseases like bird flu, ebola, and examples of certain prosthetics’. ‘Some of the pathologists we work with keep an eye out for us, to help us plug the gaps’. New diseases come along – the Museum has important holdings relating to HIV/ AIDS, for example - and historic conditions flare up again. ‘When I first came here I stopped at the tuberculosis section, which was something of a historic novelty’. Now of course, the disease is on the rise again.

Are museums of pathology here to stay? ‘There are colour atlases of pathology. But you can’t pick up the specimen and look at the back, you can’t take histology from them. You can’t take DNA. And you can’t examine them in an MRI scanner. We have the material here that’s waiting for technology that has yet to be developed’.

If you are interested in visiting theGordonMuseum, check in advance with Bill Edwards on 020 7188 2678.


Megan BeechBrowse our catalogue of King's alumni features and news stories.