Morbid Curiosities

Back in 2011, I started to become fascinated with oddities of the past, particularly those of the Victorian age. The oddities I’m referring to are rather dark and perhaps a bit morbid. I’m talking about specimens of human genetic diseases and mutations, which, when the world of human biological studies was still quite new, were collected and displayed in medical museums and universities.

I guess my fascination with such things goes back farther, to when I was six years old and my parents registered me for an arts-and-crafts day camp. This camp was hosted in a grade seven science room of an elementary school that was cleared out for the summer.

During the day camp’s lunch break, I followed some of the older kids into the storage closet of the science class where, on the shelf, was a large glass jar containing an infant pig, bathed in formaldehyde. 

I was both repulsed and fascinated by this marvelous but unfortunate creature. It was whole, and not a mutant, but it compelled me all the same. I had never seen anything like this—this concept of being able to study a creature held captive in a jar of clear liquid. Perhaps this truly was where my penchant for the beautifully macabre began.

But I digress.

In the Victorian age, where my novel, A Peculiar Curiosity is set, medical specimens were all the rage. As I mentioned before, medical museums were cropping up all over Britain. Of course, so was the demand to fill them. One can only imagine the sinister means of collecting such specimens. In the interest of science, the much taboo act of grave robbing paid rather handsomely in the day. 

I imagine many deceased congenitally disordered infants were shuffled off to display cases against their parents’ knowledge. No doubt, some would have been donated to science, but I believe a fair amount was obtained through rather questionable means.

In A Peculiar Curiosity, social anthropologist, Duncan Clarke, tells his daughter about Dr. Khan's Anatomical and Pathological Museum. This was one of the most popular public museums of anatomy in England in the mid 1800s (the height of the anatomy craze). Kahn's museum purported to demonstrate the 'wondrous' body in form and structure and to caution against practices that would 'distort or defile' its beautiful structure.' 

Dr. Khan's anatomical, embryological, and surgical collection consisted of specimens preserved in spirits, models made from wax and leather, and microscopic slides. Some of the exhibit rooms in the museum were intended for medical men only and contained graphic representations of syphilis and gonorrhea. But many women also viewed these model, which raised some controversy as the models were deemed to 'offend the most prudish taste.'

Eventually, the museum became nothing more than a front for quack cures of venereal diseases and was shut down under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857.To read more about Dr. Khan and his museum, go here

The closing of Kahn's museum in 1877 signaled the end of public anatomy museums in Britain, as all similar museums were forced to close. Today, however, all around the world the pathological museum has made a resurgence. Some of the specimens date back several centuries and have managed to survive the British Victorian age of repression and have maintained their place in original university collections. you can find links to modern pathological museums here

In addition to the pathological specimens that appear in A Peculiar Curiosity, my character Edward Walker, Victorian curiosity dealer, also has among his collection, a mummified hand, a shrunken head, spiritualistic objects, and the occasional sideshow and criminal curiosities.

If you, like me, have a strange fascination for these morbid collections, you might be interested in several books on the subject:

Morbid Curiosities: Collections of the Uncommon and Bizarre by Paul Gambino

The Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia by Gretchen Wordon

Dr. Mutter's Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz

Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians by Richard Sugg

I really enjoyed researching morbid curiosities and A Peculiar Curiosity contains several authentic curiosities and several that I invented. I hope you'll enjoy discovering which are which. 


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