Skeletons in the closet

Once found in almost every museum and university in the western world, human anatomy collections have slowly disappeared over time, as medical practices have changed. These collections are historically important and medically relevant, providing direct evidence of patients’ lives and illustrating a pivotal period in the history of medicine.

Over the past seven months, Dr Kathryn Krakowka has been going through the Museum’s human remains specimens to create a new detailed database of the contents. Here, Kathryn talks about the fascinating material she is working on…

The Museum holds many specimens that are not on public display, and perhaps one of the largest collections hidden from view is the human remains. This collection was started in the first half of the 18th century by Dr Matthew Lee, and eventually passed to Dr Henry Acland, founder of the Museum. Acland added a lot to the collection, acquiring his own samples as well as purchasing specimens and collections from other physicians.

When Acland gathered material for the new museum building in 1860, he brought this anatomical and physiological material with him, including the human remains. The collection continued to develop throughout the 19th century and grew to contain over 1,400 specimens. It is now one of the few collections from this period still in existence in Britain.

As a specialist in human osteology, I am trained to assess human skeletonised remains for such characteristics as sex, age-at-death, and any pathologies or trauma that the individual was affected by in life.

The Museum’s collection revealed specimens that tell a tale of health and medicine at Oxford in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of the specimens were used to teach medicine, so many different skeletal pathologies are represented, including bacterial infections, genetic deformities, nutritional deficiencies, and traumatic injuries.

A skull fragment showing a large growth. The four round marks are thought to have been made by a tool during investigations after death.

One example is the frontal bone of a possible child, pictured above. This presents a large porous growth affecting both the outer and inner table of the bone. The characteristics of the lesion suggest osteosarcoma (bone cancer). There are then what appear to be four tool markings on the outer table of bone that indicate some sort of drill may have been used to take samples of the bone after death, possibly in an attempt to determine what was ailing the individual during life.

As this growth is quite large and just above the forehead, it would have been very noticeable while the individual was alive. This specimen provides an interesting example of how medical practices were often developed through exploratory postmortem analysis.

Now that the collection has been fully catalogued and digitised, it is hoped that further research into specimens like this one can help shed light on historical pathologies and the development of medicine as a discipline.

The database and digital images of the specimens will soon be available on the Museum’s website, thanks to funding by the John Fell Fund.