Anatomical tables displaying 17th century human remains go on show

17:00 15 May 2012

Curator Emma Shepley with a wax anatomical model at the Curious Anatomys exhibition at The Royal College of Physicians. Picture: Polly Hancock

Curator Emma Shepley with a wax anatomical model at the Curious Anatomys exhibition at The Royal College of Physicians. Picture: Polly Hancock


A rare set of tables that display preserved human remains from the 17th century are on full public display for the first time in their history.

The six ‘anatomical tables’ feature human veins, nerves and arteries that have been varnished on to large wooden panels and are on show at the Royal College of Physicians in Regent’s Park.

The tables are one of two sets of their kind known in Europe and are thought to have been brought back from Padua in Italy by Sir John Finch, an ambassador to England in the 17th century.

The other set of tables are owned by the Royal College of Surgeons.

The six tables show the nervous system of an adult male and life-size arterial and venous systems of a male and a female.

There is also what is thought to be the system of an animal and a dissected placenta. The remains are thought to be those of executed criminals from the time.

It is unknown whether the tables were meant as teaching aides or whether they were simply a status symbol for wealthy English gentlemen.

Until they were given to the Royal College of Physicians in 1823, they were part of the estate of the Earl of Nottingham.

Now modern-day medics say they are a useful, if odd, educational resource.

Francis Wells, a consultant surgeon who presented a talk on the tables, said: “The skills required to complete this level of dissection are considerable. As historical objects they are equally important and enthralling.”

Little is known about how the tables were actually created.

Emma Shepley, curator of the Curious Anatomys exhibition, where the tables will be shown said: “We can’t be sure whether the systems shown on the tables were taken from the body and put onto the table or whether the body was placed on the table and parts were removed.”

The tables have been brought into the public arena after funding was secured for conservation work last year.

They will be on show until October 26.

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