As a historian, I frequently feel like a time traveler. Though my readings focus on science, that science is inevitably infused with details of scientists’ lives: their cultural views, their places of work, and more. My readings fill my mind with images of horse-drawn carriages, Victorian tea parties, and hand-written letters.
But every now and then, I truly travel through time and meet these hand-written letters face to face: I get to visit archives. Traveling to libraries and museums, I examine original papers from the scientists I study. I pour over old notebooks, correspondence, and even sometimes diaries, piecing together the personalities and worldviews of these scientists.
One thing that makes these research trips special is the actual places I’m able to visit. Scientists’ papers are often housed at the institutions in which they worked, institutions that I have read all about through the eyes of these scientists. For example, George Busk, worked at the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS), so I’ve spent months reading the lectures he gave there as a Professor, learning about his work as President of the college, and examining the measurements he made on skulls in the collections. His world revolved around the RCS, the precise place in which I’m sitting.
The last couple of weeks, I have spent my days time traveling, carefully thumbing through old papers in the Royal College of Surgeons. And every moment at the College–from looking through papers to just walking up the stairs–I think about the deep history this place has for me. It is a place delightfully haunted by the ghosts of men I’ve spent so much time trying to understand.
Everything the imagination can conceive: 19th century
As I walk up the steps into the College, I think about Huxley, Busk, and others walking up these same stairs over 150 years ago. Historian Adrian Desmond brought the College’s entryway to life in his biography of Huxley, writing that Huxley’s “spare hours were spent in the refurbished Royal College of Surgeons.” Desmond imagines that “the building was only five years old, yet Huxley marched past doric pillars already blackened with coal-smoke” in the industrial London air.
Once inside, Huxley spent much of his time in the College’s museum, known as the Hunterian. Painting a picture of the museum, Desmond writes that Huxley often “sat in the magnificent 90-foot museum, sun streaming in through his high alcove windows, lighting three-story book-lined walls.” There were over 12,000 exhibits in the Hunterian, “endless deformities, surgical curios, pickled platypuses and chimpanzee parts…the richest vein of morbid and comparative anatomy in town.”
The collections included the bones of human giants, ground sloths, and giant armadillos. It was “everything the imagination of man can conceive” Huxley once explained in a letter. The museum also held a tremendous collection of human skulls from all over the world, a collection Busk and Huxley poured over during their attempts to make sense of the first Neanderthal skull.
Ambulances & bombs: 20th century
My research has recently shifted from the 19th to the 20th century, and I’ve been studying anatomist Sir Arthur Keith. Coincidentally, Keith also worked at the RCS, though many years after Huxley and Busk. In his autobiography, Keith gives many vivid descriptions of the college, and his descriptions of life there during both World Wars is especially striking.
In WWI Keith writes “the routine of life in the Museum was soon altered…[it] became crowded with a new sort of visitor. Officers engaged in training recruits for the Army Medical Service brought their men to instruct them in the elements of Human Anatomy: all day long ambulance and first aid classes came and went.”
WWII was much more terrifying for those at the College. Keith noted that “The enemy was dropping bombs on Paris in an undiscriminating way,” and commented that it was certainly possible that the enemy could “treat London in a similar fashion.” He worried about the vast collections of the Hunterian, writing “our museum, situated so near to the center of London, offered a most vulnerable target. Its lofty halls, with their galleries, crowded with spirit specimens, over 20,000 in number were vulnerable.”
These bits of history illuminate how institutions play various roles in–and are affected by–wartime. Keith’s fears were realized on the night of May 10, 1941, when the college was hit with incendiary bombs that started a massive fire. The fire caused “irreparable losses” to the collections. A haunting photograph in the college’s archives shows Keith helping clean up the damage, a tattered bust of Richard Owen in the foreground.
Royal College of Surgeons today
Though the damage from the bombs was immense, those of us who use the collections and archives today still marvel at how much was saved. The front of the College, along with the library, was spared from the fires–which is likely the only reason the precious archival materials I examine still exist. I conduct my research in the library, which looks very much the same as it did when Huxley, Busk, and Keith utilized it.
Stories of pickled platypuses and WWI first aid classes really bring the College to life for me. After studying it for so long, I feel like I can see its history in color. And that’s important for a place that shaped so much research–some of the first studies of Neanderthals, Australopithecines, and more, were conducted within those walls. I never could have imagined that a place could acquire so much meaning for me, but through the eyes of Huxley, Keith, and others, I am able to see the central role this institution had in many branches of science, including paleoanthropology.