Where the Strange Specimens Sleep
Barts Pathology Museum is home to Holmes and Watson, the skull of the man who killed a Prime Minister, and a treasure trove of centuries-old pathological specimens. George Lee interviews curator Carla Valentine to find out more.
George Francis Lee | | 5 min read | Interview
Walking past the pristine white facade of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, many would be forgiven for thinking that its murky history had long been scrubbed clean. And yet, hidden deep within the bowels of the UK’s oldest hospital lies a large Victorian hall. Equipped with three mezzanine levels, it is fully stocked with pathology specimens from centuries gone by. It’s here that specimens from pathology’s “wild west” are stored – everything from a 1750 inguinal hernia to the bound foot of a 19th-century Chinese woman. It’s also where Carla Valentine, the museum’s curator, spends most of her time.
What is Barts Pathology Museum?
The pathology museum is a repository of around 5,000 anatomical specimens stored in a huge, purpose-built facility with three mezzanine levels. The museum was built in 1879, but the collection itself began about a century earlier. Because the museum is part of the medical school rather than the hospital, students get to use some of the specimens and take exams in the space. It’s a closed facility, but we do open events and evenings through the autumn and put on public-facing events about all sorts of topics – so even though it’s not a place people can just walk into, it is a really incredible collection that everyone has the opportunity to view.
How did you get started with the museum?
Can I say through destiny? Honestly, I was very lucky. I don’t know whether these things happen for a reason but, after a decade as an anatomical pathology technician, I felt I had nowhere to go. I took voluntary redundancy and started writing a book based on my blog. At the same time, I started to work for Barts Cancer Institute, dealing with some specimens on the side. I had been there for about six months when I saw the listing for the pathology museum job. I honestly don’t think I would ever have seen it otherwise. I got in touch, went over to see the place, and just couldn’t believe it was there. It’s absolutely massive. The manager asked me if I was sure I wanted to apply, because nobody else works here most of the time. Personally, I couldn’t think of anything better.
What draws such a unique collection of specimens to Barts?
There are several pathology museums in London, but what sets Barts apart is the epidemiological value. For example, we have lots of instances of scrotal cancers from chimney sweeps, because they worked naked and carbon collected in the scrotal folds. The same applies to things like phosphorus necrosis of the jaw (we call it “phossy jaw” for short), which emerged in people who worked in matchstick factories and were responsible for dipping the matchsticks into the phosphorus. We have lots of specimens like that and they tell very specific stories. They are great snapshots of different places and times in history.
Do you have a favorite specimen?
There are so many fascinating specimens that it’s difficult to pick one. I do think that one of the most interesting sets of specimens is those of Leonard Portal Mark. Mark was a medical illustrator at Barts, but he unknowingly had acromegaly for years. He realized as his bones and fingers grew longer and, ultimately, he donated lots of his body parts to the museum. There are also plenty of unusual ones, like the anti-aircraft shell that was found up a man’s bum.
Are there any specimens the museum lacks that you’d like to acquire?
Interestingly, we are in the process of acquiring our first new specimen in over 20 years, which is a COVID-19 lung. We are trying to keep with the times, as it were!
I do wish the medicolegal forensic section were bigger. It’s fairly big already, but I’m fascinated by forensics and I just can’t get enough of it. We do have a lot of poisonings, but I don’t believe we have strychnine poisoning, whereas we have arsenic and many others. I’d like to build up the poison collection – just not to the point where I’m going to go out myself and do it!
What are your goals for the museum’s future?
For a long time, we weren’t sure what was going to happen to the museum. There is a private hospital being built as a part of Barts right next door; that alone caused a lot of problems in terms of museum infrastructure. Thankfully, my contract has been renewed for a few years, so I’d like to get back to opening for lots of public engagement events. We used to host some incredible pre-pandemic events. It would be nice to open the door for more people and to find a more appropriate space for medical students (the building is old, so we have to be careful). Of course, in the meantime, people can always contact me to organize a viewing…
Do you have a favorite experience at Barts?
It has to be when Henry Rollins came to look around. I’ve been a fan for a very long time. He was over in London a while back and, as a fan, I knew that he liked seeing interesting, different things. I got in touch with his management and said, “I know Henry’s in town; I’ve got tickets to his show. I curate this space. I know he likes to see unique things. Would he like to visit?” He was there for about four hours with me showing him around. It was pretty amazing.