What do you look like now? What will you look like then?

The 4th blog by ‘Ruth Kowslowski’, Chapter 19, The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes

Louis van Bils sold his secret recipe for embalming bodies to the States of Brabant and the University of Louvain, in 1664; it required copious quantities of rum and brandy. In 1669 de Bils also tried to sell his recipe in the northern Netherlands, in Leiden and Amsterdam, with the help of Dr Tobias Andreae, ‘Professor of Physick at Duysburgh on Rhyn’, but they met considerable resistance from Dr Frederik Ruysch. His own recipe was secret, after all, and would later be the envy of a Russian Czar.

These days embalming is a quicker, cheaper process, syringes attached to electric pumps, cheap ready-made preservatives, and suction tubes. Let’s not bother with the details. Better to drink the rum and brandy with the funeral meats.

Regnier de Graaf, 17th-century Dutch anatomist and physician (and also a Fellow of the Royal Society in London) whose name lives on today in the Graafian follicles of the ovary, devised a syringe that Jan Swammerdam found very useful. By then, the European anatomists were all at it, shooting up warm coloured waxes or mercury or resins into blood vessels and lymphatics, and dissecting tissues or dissolving them away – corrosion  casting – to follow the course of the now-visible vessels. (Some still do it today, with the modern techniques of injection and plastination. Anatomy can no longer keep a secret.)

William Hunter, surgeon, accomplished teacher and accoucheur to royalty, and his brother John, surgeon and anatomist, their assistants and their protegés – they were all busy injecting and dissecting, delving into the twists and anastomoses of the body’s vessels, in chickens and alligators, rabbits and frogs, humans, dogs and leopards. For how could one perform corrective surgery on humans in the metaphorical dark? Comparative anatomy was a useful tool, for what might be indistinct in one species might be more clearly visible and understood in another.

De Graaf started with the proverbially fecund rabbit, William Hunter worked with women. In 1751 he procured the body of a woman in late pregnancy, and during the next 20 years he studied pregnancies at various stages.  There are ten life-size plaster models of the gravid uterus in Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum, each uterus in situ in the abdomen, the mother’s thighs sawn through to expose gigots of meat. No lacy caps disguise the stumps, this is anatomy for instruction not moralisation. We don’t know whether the real-life mothers were prostitutes nor do we care. The colours of  the plaster casts are as fresh and bright as though uterus and foetus are alive, pink flesh, red and blue blood. The complex spatial puzzle, the three-dimensional fit between mother and child is made clear. ‘The whole of them are exactly like nature herself, and almost as good as the fresh subject’.

(See below (1) For further information on these images)

Hunter employed artists like Jan van Rymsdyck to draw and paint pictures of the injected and dissected specimens at each stage. The texture of the life-size paintings in The Anatomy of the Gravid Uterus (1774) is almost the equal of Rachel Ruysch’s skills, a window is reflected in the damp membrane around a life-size foetus rather than on the moist bloom of a Ruyschian grape. Or on the glass cornea of an artificial eye.

Amongst the many specimens in the Hunterian Museum is a glass receptacle containing one of William’s injected placentas, a grey slab of tissue through which the silvery worms of mercury coil, anastomose and interdigitate. Who discovered what? John Hunter, too, had worked on the human uterus. Dispute arose between the brothers, and Benjamin Franklin again poured oil on their troubled waters. In Joshua Reynold’s portrait of John, the glass jar standing close to Giant O’Brian’s bony feet holds a section of placenta injected with red wax.

John, now Surgeon-General in the army, experimented on bringing dead bodies to life, or the near-dead, anyway, bodies rescued from near-drowning. By pumping warm air into their lungs, they were resuscitated and began to breathe again. Although he dissected and described the electric organs of the ray Torpedo, he did not try to use electricity to galvanise bodies to life. That was for Mary Shelley to imagine. But in 1818 James Jeffroy, Regius Professor of Anatomy at Glasgow, used bellows to blow air into the lungs of the dead murderer Matthew Clydesdale. The terminals of the newly-invented galvanic battery had already been connected to Clydesdale’s body, and when the current was switched on, his eyes opened, his tongue protruded and his lips moved. Did Jeffroy believe the man had come back to life? He plunged a scalpel into the murderer’s carotid artery, and the man ‘fell dead on the floor’. Onlookers fainted!

Dr William Hunter and his colleague Dr William Cruikshank put the injection technique to a less honourable use. In 1775 they embalmed Mrs Mary van Butchell, aged 36 years, with the help of her dentist husband Martin. Hunter’s recipe was quick and simple. Mix 5 pints oil of turpentine, 1 pint Venice turpentine, 2 fluid ounces oil of lavender, and vermilion. The solution was injected into Mary’s blood vessels until all her skin took up the reddish colour and the body was left to lie for a couple of hours to allow the solution to diffuse further through her tissues. Then her viscera were removed and washed in water, and injected and steeped in camphorated ‘spirits of wine’.  She was injected a second time, her viscera were replaced and the body cavities filled with camphor, nitre (potassium nitrate) and resin before being sewn up. The ‘outlets’ of her body were also filled with camphor and her skin was rubbed with oils of rosemary and lavender. Wearing a lace dress and with a rosy-pink complexion, Mary was laid on a bed of Plaster of Paris to absorb moisture and, it is said, was displayed in the window of Martin’s house.

It is also said that this bizarre display was (a) to drum up custom for Martin’s dental practice and (b) because Martin could have access to Mary’s money only while she was ‘above ground’. Whatever version of the truth, the second Mrs van Butchell was unimpressed. Mary was sent to stay at Hunter’s museum in Great Windmill Street.

Preservation for the after-life, preservation as an object of worship, preservation to ‘make a point’, icons and auto-icons, anatomical aids and anatomical art: we humans can rationalise almost anything that we do. Lenin, a modest man, did not have much say about the matter after his death, but Jeremy Bentham (died 1832) definitely wanted to hang around and be useful. It’s a myth that he wanted to be displayed at University College London, for he wished to be useful as an anatomical specimen, and it’s a myth that he was embalmed. He was a taxidermal preparation, dressed in his own clothes which Professor George Thane noted in 1898 ‘were stuffed with hay and tow around the skeleton, which had been macerated and skilfully articulated.’ The head of the specimen is ‘so perfect that it seems as if alive’ – and is made of wax. Bentham’s real head was mummified and dried, not unlike one of the shrunken heads in Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Collection. Wrapped in a bituminous cloth, it was originally placed out of sight inside his torso.

The dead have so many secrets, so many different stories.

Frank Buckland did not mention the state of his hero John Hunter’s body when he found the coffin in St Martin’s vault but there are instances of bodies that fail to decay. Some of the 18th –  and 19th-century bodies excavated from Christ Church crypt in Spitalfields in 1984 were preserved by saponification, their fatty tissue having converted into a stable brownish-white wax of saturated fatty acids and their salts This adipocere characterises the famous ‘Soap Lady’ whom Joseph Leidy gave to Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum in 1874. Perhaps the same had happened to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s wife, Elizabeth Siddall. It is said that she remained intact and beautiful when the impoverished drug-addicted poet sent Charles Augustus Howell to retrieve his poems from her coffin (though it’s certainly a myth that her red-gold hair had continued to grow so as to fill the coffin).

Not so beautiful are the bog-bodies nor are they as well preserved as the fatty ‘bog-butter’, 2000-year-old wrapped packages recently found buried in an Irish bog. But the torso of Lindow Man from a Cheshire bog and the bodies of Tollund and Grauballe Men from Denmark are a couple of thousand years old, and probably the victims of ritual killing. Tanned, shrunken but preserved by the anoxic acidity of peat, with teeth and hair intact, they can still reveal some secrets and Grauballe Man is the most revelatory of all.

Dissections are out of the question because these bodies are valuable archaeological specimens, but computerised tomography or CT scanning uses X-rays to generate 3D images so we can nevertheless look inside. Grauballe Man doesn’t have a hard skeleton because the acid peat has dissolved the calcium, so his ‘bones’ are more like rubber. And his face has been re-modelled by the earlier conservators at the museum who padded the skin under his eyes with putty like a Pharaonic mummy. Sadly for Irish Cloneycavan Man, his face has been re-modelled too, but by the murder weapon. But he still has lovely red hair, slicked into a Tin-Tin quiff with Iron Age hair-gel, a mixture of vegetable oil and the resin of a French or Spanish pine.

No scalpel is needed now to look at bones and sinews, no syringe to find blood vessels and lymphatics. Sophisticated machines can look inside our living bodies, we can even watch our heart beat. We can even watch our foetuses suck their thumbs.Twin CT-scanners, combined with positron emission tomography, PET, can create pictures of the insides of living bodies as they have never been seen before.

As for the preserved dead, we can analyse the DNA of their last meal. ‘Ötzi’, deep-frozen for 5000 years in an Ötztal glacier, ate ibex and red deer and vegetables before the arrow penetrated his shoulder.

Mis-quoting Papin, ‘Through thy science … a dead person lives and teaches and, though speechless, still speaks’. But the story, mis-remembered, can speak with many tongues.


(1) Reflection of a dissection room window in the chorion (outermost membrane) covering a foetus – for more on Jan van Rymsdyck’s drawings and etchings of William Hunter’s dissections of the gravid uterus, see The Sterile Eye blog.

The artificial eye is in Peter the Great’s collection in St Petersburg and was photographed by Rosamond Wolff Purcell for the chapter ‘Dutch Treat: Peter the Great and Frederik Ruysch‘ in Finders, Keepers, Stephen J Gould and Rosamond Wolff Purcell, Hutchinson 1992 (she generously gave Ann Lingard permission to use the image on the cover of the First Edition of The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes). There is a short video about the book on YouTube.

Rachel Ruysch’s painting,  An arrangement of flowers by a tree-trunk, is in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. (Ann Lingard thanks the ‘Culture & Sport Glasgow (Museums)’ for permission to use this image.)

Copper Kettles

The (edited) 2nd  blog by ‘Ruth Kowslowski’, from The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes, Chapter 9

hunter relics catalogue

On July 5th 1893 an Exhibition of ‘A Collection of Hunterian Relics’ opened at the Royal College of Surgeons, in London. Not the relics of Dr William Hunter, FRS and President of the Royal Academy, but of his younger brother, John, the naturalist and surgeon, born in Lanarkshire in 1729, and died, very suddenly, in London on October 16th 1793.

Amongst the items on display is a ‘Copper, in which the Irish Giant, Charles Byrne, who was exhibited in London as O’Brien the Irish Giant, was boiled.’ The copper was lent by Professor Chiene, of Edinburgh. The catalogue has a further explanatory note: ‘This copper was in Hunter’s house in Earl’s Court and was sold there in 1866 when the house was pulled down. On the death of Byrne in 1783, Hunter obtained his body and macerated it in this copper … The skeleton of Byrne is in the College Museum.’ As indeed it is, to this day.

As for poor Hunter’s sudden death, there is also exhibited the ‘Sofa on which John Hunter died. Whilst speaking at a meeting of the Board of Governors at St George’s Hospital on October 16th 1793, Hunter was contradicted by one of his colleagues. He immediately left off his speech and in an excited state hurried to an adjoining room; where he fell into the arms of Dr Robertson and almost immediately expired.’ Fortunately for him, his body was not macerated in the copper, but was placed in a vault at St Martin’s in the Fields. Of which, more later.

The College Museum has an engraving of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Hunter, and Byrne is thus twice immortalised for, in the top right corner of the portrait and behind Hunter’s head are the lower portions of two gigantic femora and their two feet – the legs of that most famous Tall Man who, from the angle of his skeletal feet, must be standing on tip-toe, perhaps to increase his height even more.


Portrait of John Hunter, miniature copy by Henry Bone RA after Joshua Reynolds, 1798. (My thanks to The Hunterian Museum at The Royal College of Surgeons of England for permission to reproduce this image.)

John Hunter has a square, kindly, thoughtful face and his forehead is broad and tall beneath his curly reddish hair. He doesn’t look like a giant-killer.

To be fair, it seems that poor Charles Byrne, aged 22, height 7 feet 7 inches, drank himself to death. The story of Byrne is well-known, much has been written about him, both fact and fiction. He was born on the Derry/Tyrone border in 1761 and, because those were times when the exhibition of ‘freaks’ was commonplace,  Jack Vance, from a neighbouring village, persuaded him that he could get rich if he toured the shows and fairgrounds: a sideshow attraction. On April 11th 1782, Byrne and Vance (self-important as the Giant’s Agent) reached London and on April 24th an advertisement proclaimed ‘Irish Giant. To be seen this and every day this week, in his large elegant room, at the cane shop, next door to late Cox’s Museum, Spring Gardens.’ Admission was half-a-crown. By the late autumn, the public was jaded, the novelty had worn off, the price had dropped and the Giant O’Brien had moved twice, to rooms no longer so large and elegant. A year after his arrival in London, he was robbed outside a pub – of £700, presumably his entire worldly wealth which, for some reason, he was carrying in his pocket.

Despair, too much alcohol, and ill-health – Charles Byrne knew he was dying and somehow he also learnt that the anatomist John Hunter was very keen to obtain a giant’s skeleton. Byrne didn’t want his bones to be boiled, he didn’t want to be exhibited any more, alive or dead. He gave instructions that after his death his body should be watched day and night until a large lead coffin had been built. His body was to be placed in it and it should be carried (how many tonnes would a giant lead coffin weigh?) out to sea and sunk. A newspaper reported after the event that ‘Byrne’s body was shipped on board a vessel in the river last night … to be sunk in 20 fathom water: the body-hunters … have provided a pair of diving bells, with which they flatter themselves they shall be able to weigh hulk gigantic from its watery grave.

No diving bell was needed. Hunter, having sent his assistant Howison as spy, bribed the men whom Byrne had employed to sink him. Fifty pounds, one hundred pounds, the price escalated. Five hundred pounds was later reported as the sum involved. Byrne’s body was removed and carried by hackney coach then Hunter’s carriage to Earl’s Court where, since Hunter feared that his body-snatching would be discovered, Byrne’s body was ‘quickly cut to pieces and the flesh separated by boiling.

‘I lately got a tall man’, Hunter wrote to Sir Joseph Banks.

Presumably John Hunter and Howison (not to be confused with his brother William Hunter’s assistant, William Hewson) boiled and re-assembled the skeleton themselves. Ten years earlier William Hunter had fallen out with Hewson, for Hewson ‘had employ’d a Man to pick Bones out of the Tubs and fit up a Skeleton for him, without Leave’. Benjamin Franklin was called in to settle the dispute (Benjamin was often called in for this purpose). Although Hewson was highly skilled at injecting lymphatics and preparing specimens, he was eventually dismissed – and disinherited.

shepherd hunterian
TH Shepherd’s engraving of the Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, London

In Shepherd’s 1840 engraving of the College Museum, Charles Byrne’s skeleton with its smiling skull towers over the other exhibits from the top of a mahogany case. A photograph taken in 1852 shows him prominently displayed.

charles byrne skelton
Brendan Holland and Marta Kobonits examine Charles Byrne’s skeleton in 2011 (see note 1)


And so he remains, in the 21st Century, and we think of him kindly and with sympathy. Perhaps finally he has been able to smile at the thought that his story as well as his bones (and a portrait of his feet!) are still preserved and admired nearly 250 years later.

The copper with which Charles Byrne is unfortunately associated was lent to the Exhibition of Hunterian Relics by a Scottish professor; Frank Buckland, Esquire, son of Dean Buckland of Islip, Oxfordshire, lent a Chair. The chair bore a brass plate with the following inscription: ‘This Chair is made from the bedstead of John Hunter…’ Buckland had been given the bedstead by ‘Professor Owen, FRS., etc. who wrote “ … it is the frame of the bedstead in which John Hunter lay when brought from St George’s Hospital”. ’

What a tangled network of old boys’ ties! Owen, of dinosaurs and founder of the Natural History Museum, the devious Owen, a curator of the Hunterian Collection – and Frank Buckland (1826-1880),  naturalist, collector, taxidermist, expert on fish and fisheries, and a kindly, well-liked man.buckland

Nearly 100 hundred years after the giant Byrne’s death, in May 1871, Buckland was visited by ‘a strange party from the other side of the Atlantic’: Miss Swan the giantess (7 feet 6 inches) and Captain Martin van Buren Bates, ‘about as tall’, and both aged 24 years old. Bates was ‘a splendid-looking fellow, very unlike pictures of the giant in the “fe fa fum; I smell the blood of an Englishman” legend.’ Not only was Bates splendid, but he and Miss Swan apparently made a splendid couple, too. ‘I make bold to say that Miss Swan is the most agreeable, good-looking giantess that I have ever met,’ Buckland wrote. ‘She is ladylike in manners and address and would be a most agreeable neighbour at a dinner-party.’ He had the opportunity to test this three years later, when he entertained the splendid couple at dinner in honour of their marriage.

Giants came to Britain from all around the world, Chinese, American, Irish and French. Buckland dined with ‘the Chinese Giant’, Chang Woo Gow. Buckland himself was the cause of a ‘breach of discipline’ in his regiment, a spreading roar of laughter one Sunday in 1862, when he appeared on church parade in the company of ‘Brice the French Giant and a dwarf then exhibiting in London.’ Brice, like the skeletal Byrne, was apparently 7 feet 7 inches tall, and a well-proportioned and amiable man. A frequent visitor to Buckland’s house, he gave him a pair of his shoes and a cast of his hand as mementoes. There is a story that ‘A lady dwarf was one day invited to meet him, but with untoward results; the good-natured giant took her up, as a little girl, on his knee, causing an explosion of indignation. “I am nineteen,” she cried, “and to treat me like a baby!” It was long before her ruffled dignity could be appeased.’

As for John Hunter, his body was deposited in the vaults of St Martin’s in the Fields in 1793. In 1859 Frank Buckland determined to find the body of his hero, ‘the greatest of Englishmen’, and spent two weeks searching through the vaults. ‘The stink awful’, he wrote in his diary. Then on February 22nd he ‘found the coffin of John Hunter. At work all the morning and about three in the afternoon found it, the bottom coffin of the last tier but one. It is in excellent condition, and the letters on the brass plate as perfect as the day they were engraved. “John Hunter Esq., died October 16th, 1793, aged 64”.’

On February 23rd, Buckland went down into the vaults again with Professor Owen: ‘I wish I could have made a sketch of him, with his hand on the coffin, looking thoughtfully at it; it would have made an excellent subject.’ Buckland was very ill for several days after this rummaging in the foetid air, but he was well enough to attend the re-interment of Hunter’s coffin (and presumably therefore of Hunter’s bones) at  Westminster Abbey in late March.

The photograph that he took of the coffin was presented to the Royal College of Surgeons and displayed in the Hunterian Relics Exhibition, on a stand in the middle of the Library: the furniture and the Copper were placed along the North wall.

Charles Byrne, the Giant O’Brien, smiled inscrutably in the hall downstairs.


(1) Brendan Holland has the same genetic mutation as Charles Byrne:

See ‘How an Irish giant and an 18th century surgeon could help people with growth disorders


‘Royal College of Surgeons rejects call to bury skeleton of Irish giant’