A treasure trove of spooky artefacts has been discovered in the archives of St George’s, University of London - one of the oldest healthcare and medical schools in the UK.

Kinnerton Street Dissection Room rs web 4

calendar-icon 30 October 2017

Items include a cloth used to wrap a dead King and papers revealing a scandal that provoked Charles Dickens to condemn post mortem practices as “shocking”.

The cloth is called a cerecloth - material treated with wax and used for wrapping dead bodies - which was used for wrapping the dead body of King George II in 1760.

George II cerecloth Web

The section of cloth was cut by Caesar Hawkins, who was surgeon to St George’s Hospital from 1735-1774 and was sergeant-surgeon to Kings George II and George III.

The items have come to light through the work of the university archivist, who is busy discovering the rich history of the institution which was established in 1831.

The post mortem case books in the archive, which give detailed reports on the pathological findings made during the examinations, also tell us a lot about the lives of the patients. They often include details about their past life, and sometimes their drinking habits!

One post mortem record relates to an incident known as 'the hospital scandal' of the 1850s which resulted in novelist Charles Dickens writing a letter to the Governors of St George's Hospital.

A letter from the famous author reveals that a widow named Margaret Purvis, from Devil's Acre in Westminster, died from cancer at the hospital. A post mortem examination was carried out by Henry Gray - of Gray’s Anatomy fame - in 1856 and, following this, a family-friend went to take care of Mrs Purvis' body.

She was shocked to find the body naked and dishevelled on the same slab as the corpses of two naked men.

This resulted in Charles Dickens, who was asked to help by a family friend, writing a letter to the hospital governors in 1857. In the letter, dated 3 January 1857, Dickens said the body’s "appearance... was so forlorn and shocking, that she [Mrs Bragg] hid it from the sight of the daughter of the deceased, until she had been able to perform those functions for it, which decency and humanity usually suggest."

This resulted in a change for the hospital in that a new room was built to store the dead temporarily, and a nurse was employed to dress and decently dispose of the bodies as well as look after the relatives of the deceased.

The post-mortem case provides further insight to this incident. Furthermore, the case reveals an error in the recording of the deceased's first name. This lack of congruence was not uncommon and it reveals, in itself, further evidence about the treatment and respect for the dead at that time.

Among the other fascinating objects which illustrate the changing way surgery has been carried out during the ages, is a set of surgical tools which include bone cutters for chopping off fingers and toes, and a trepanning tool for cutting holes in the skull.

The set of surgical instruments, which has two secret compartments, was awarded to student Edward Walker for the best dissection during the 1856-1857 session. He was the son of Robert Walker, surgeon to St George’s Hospital in the early 19th century. On the advice of his father, Edward qualified as a doctor so he could draw extra pay as a regimental surgeon.

archivist Carly Manson wb

Carly Manson, Archivist at the university’s Archives and Special Collections, said: “Some of the discoveries are particularly gruesome indeed.

“The post mortem records give a particularly fascinating insight into how practices have changed especially when dealing with cadavers. The case histories make perfect reading for Halloween!”

Other items include many pictures from the history of the university including of the Kinnerton Street Dissection Room from 1860 when the medical school was located on Kinnerton Street.

It shows a cadaver on the table, a skull, and some anatomical drawings in the background. Pictured at the front centre-left is renowned anatomist and surgeon Henry Gray.

Gray was born in 1827 and is most notable for publishing the textbook Gray's Anatomy. He studied at St George’s and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at the age of only 25.

The great ambition of Gray’s life had been to become Surgeon to St George’s Hospital. A vacancy became available on the staff and he was nominated, without opposition, for the Assistant-Surgeoncy.

But the day following his nomination, symptoms of fever showed themselves, terminating in confluent small-pox, and in one short week this accomplished surgeon and anatomist had died. Gray had unfortunately became infected with smallpox while looking after his sick nephew who went on to recover from the infection.

For further information about the history of the post mortem, and the post mortem records of St George’s Hospital, see the post by Carly Manson, the university archivist.

The information and images come from the St George’s Archives and Special Collections.