The Creation and Evolution of the Educational Role of the Cambridge Anatomical Museum


Jenna M. Dittmar (University of Cambridge)


The creation and evolution of the educational role of the Cambridge Anatomical Museum.


Paper given at the symposium, ‘Medical training, student experience and the transmission of knowledge, c.1800-2014’, organised by Laura Kelly, at CHOMI, UCD, October 2014


The interior of the Department of Anatomy at Cambridge University. Photograph, 1888/1893. Wellcome Library, London.

The interior of the Department of Anatomy at Cambridge University. Photograph, 1888/1893. Wellcome Library, London.

Anatomical  museums  were  integral  to  medical education from  the mid  1700s  to  the  early 1900s,  with  their  primary  function  as  a  teaching  resource.  Contemporary  anatomists
believed  that  ‘Anatomy  cannot  be  taught  without  a  museum,  and  the  more  extensive  the better…’1 However, due to the changing attitude toward medical education favouring clinical and  laboratory  medicine  in  the  1900s,  the  use  of  these  collections  for  teaching  became scarce.  This  paper  aims  to  explore  the  influencing  factors  behind  the  assemblage  of anatomical preparations for teaching purposes at the University of Cambridge and how the collection and its‟ role in education changed over time.

Since its origin in the mid-1700s, the collection at the University of Cambridge was heavily influenced  by  the  individual  research  interests  of  the  Professors  of  Anatomy;  Sir  Busick Harwood,  William  Clark  and  Sir  George  Murray  Humphry.  With  their  common  goal  of providing better teaching facilities, these men compiled an extensive and varied collection through  great  personal  effort  and  funds.  During  the  mid  1800s  several  collections  were purchased to fill the „gaps‟ in the collection. This included the collection of James Macartney from  Trinity  College  Dublin  and  part  of  the  Joshua  Brooke‟s  Museum.  Anatomical preparations  for  the  museum  were  also  created  in  house  by  retaining  elements  from dissections  carried  out  by  both  skilled  anatomists  and  students.  As  the  educational environment  changed  in  the  late  1890s,  curators  Alexander  Macalister  and  Wynfrid Laurence Henry Duckworth, both embraced anthropological research.

After a gradual decline in its use the Anatomical Museum was dissolved and the osteological portions  were  given  to  the  Department  of  Physical  Anthropology  in  1968,  where  this collection  remains  a  valuable  teaching  resource.  Today,  research  on  the  collection  is underway which examines the cut marks on the osteological material providing information on human dissection practices.

This  presentation  shows  how  the  content  of  the  Anatomical  Museum  at  the  University  of Cambridge evolved from human anatomy, to human-animal comparative anatomy, and then to human material. Specifically this presentation focuses on the anthropological comparative anatomy of different human races and archaeological material, and that although anatomical museums  are  no  longer  considered  essential  to  medical  education,  that  these  historic collections can still be used for educational purposes.

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