Dr Kahn’s Museum: obscene anatomy in Victorian London

Dr Joseph Kahn’s Anatomical and Pathological Museum was the 19th century’s best-known and most visited public museum of anatomy. Established in England in 1851, at the height of popular interest in anatomy, Kahn’s museum was intended to show the ‘wondrous’ structure of the body and to warn of the harmful consequences to health of abuses that ‘distort or defile’ its ‘beautiful structure’. Its subsequent decline into a front for the sale of quack remedies for venereal disease damaged the reputation of anatomy museums. After 22 years, and several bizarre legal cases, opposition from self-appointed representatives of the medical profession and anti-vice campaigners forced it to close. The successful prosecution of Kahn’s museum under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 branded all public display of anatomical specimens as potentially obscene. Thereafter, anatomical education was restricted to medical professionals and public anatomy survived only in sideshows. The public anatomical museum has remained, for increasingly outdated reasons, a lost opportunity.


There had been well-known anatomy museums in England since the 18th century. The famous collection amassed by John Hunter 1728-1793 was purchased by the government in 1799 for £15 000 and presented to the Company later the Royal College of Surgeons in London. Although there were many hundreds of visitors, the collection was not open to the public and was viewed mainly by medical men or others who could obtain an introduction. On a smaller scale, metropolitan hospitals and some medical teachers maintained private anatomy collections for their students. For the London public, there were exhibitions of anatomical waxworks, open to anyone with the price of admission. Guillaume Desnoues’s 1650-1735 detailed full-length anatomical models were brought to London in 1719 to educate and entertain the curious ‘without exciting the feeling of horror men usually have on seeing corpses’.

Other shows were more sensational; Abraham Chovet 1704-1790, the son of a London wine merchant, advertised in 1733 a model of: ‘a woman… suppos'd opened alive…’ showing the circulation of blood between mother and child with coloured liquids.

Desnoues's and Chovet's models ended up in Rackstrow's public museum in the Strand, which included an ‘anatomical exhibition’ with ‘a collection of real anatomical preparations’ and ‘a great variety of skeletons’.

Popular interest in anatomy waned in the late-18th century and Rackstrow's closed in the late 1780s.In the 1820s, two things happened that stimulated public interest in matters anatomical. One was, of course, the scandal of the murders committed by Burke and Hare in Edinburgh in 1827/1828, which provoked real or imagined concerns in London and elsewhere. The other was the increasing interest in wax or pasteboard anatomical models as a substitute for real bodies. In 1828 the word anatomical ‘turned to gold’ and wax modellers again began to stage public exhibitions of their work. Simmons’s waxworks at 167 High Holborn exhibited an ‘anatomical Samson’, which could be taken apart to reveal the viscera, ‘with a view to superseding the use of dead bodies’. Alongside it were waxworks of Burke and Hare. The Edinburgh scandal highlighted the shortage of subjects for dissection and models were presented as a way forward. Although models were never widely accepted as an alternative to dissection for medical student teaching, they made anatomy available to a wider audience: when Signor Sarti’s exhibition, with an anatomical Venus and Adonis, opened at 27 Margaret Street in 1839, the Athenaeum recommended it to ‘younger male readers’ who wanted to obtain ‘a few general ideas on the subject of anatomy, which they may do without labour or disgust’. The study of his models, claimed Sarti, would give the visitor ‘the power to communicate intelligibly with his medical advisor’ and ‘teach him the absolute necessity of putting implicit faith in those men who have made Anatomy and Physiology the study of their lives.’

via Dr Kahn’s Museum: obscene anatomy in Victorian London — Bates 99 12: 618 — JRSM.

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