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Things to do in Edinburgh: Surgeons Hall Museum

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The front of the Surgeons Hall Museum in Edinburgh - huge building with 5 large columns on the front

Spend a day reliving medical and surgical history at the Surgeons Hall Museum in Edinburgh. The medical museum is filled to the brim with a collection of curiosities, rarities and oddities that will both educate and shock you.

The Surgeons’ Hall Museum, owned by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, is home to one of the oldest and most comprehensive pathology collections in the world. The Surgeons’ Hall Museums is divided into three sections: The Wohl Pathology Museum, The History of Surgery Museum and The Dental Collection.

The lower level of the Wohl Pathology Museum in the Surgeons Hall Museum in Edinburgh
Image used with permission from the Surgeons Hall Museum

The Wohl Pathology Museum

The top floor is dedicated to The Wohl Pathology Museum which focuses on the history of the study of pathology — the impact diseases have on body parts and bones. Here you’ll find a collection of amputated body parts, surgically-removed organs and disease-riddled specimens in jars.

This section also highlights the role of women in medical history, including details about The Edinburgh Seven — the first female students enrolled at Edinburgh University.

There’s a section dedicated to how warfare changed the landscape of military surgery, too.

The Wohl Pathology Museum in Edinburgh is a must-see for anyone interested in looking at genuine specimens taken from people who suffered from various medical issues throughout history. The place may be a bit gruesome, but the educational experience makes it worth a visit – even for the squeamish.

I read a review of the Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh that made me laugh. Brea Simpson says, “Their collection of diseased testicles is not to be missed.” With a review like that – how can you not visit?

Inside of the History of Surgery Museum with wall displays and glass displays filled with medical history items
Image used with permission from the Surgeons Hall Museum

The History of Surgery Museum

Throughout history, Edinburgh had a remarkable reputation for incredibly advanced medical science technology. It’s where many colossally important medical discoveries were made, such as the use of antiseptic in surgeries and using chloroform to make anesthetic.

Located on the first floor, The History of Surgery Museum in Edinburgh’s Surgeons’ Hall invites you to take a tour through medical history. The History of Surgery Museum teaches you all about Scotland’s first public dissection with a journey to its anatomy theatre, complete with an interactive dissection table.

This part of the museum has connections with Burke and Hare — two men who turned to murder to provide Robert Knox with bodies to dissect. Robert Knox was the conservator at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and cataloged the Bell and Barclay Collections.

You can find out more about how body dissection was ultimately used as punishment. Be sure to get up close and personal by checking out the death mask of William Burke and laying your eyes on a pocketbook made out of his skin!

The Dissection Theatre complete with an interactive dissection
Image used with permission from the Surgeons Hall Museum

The Dental Collection

The Dental Collection pays homage to the history of dentistry in Scotland. The collection features several displays, including teeth and instruments used in dental surgery.

Here you can take a step back to a 19th-century dentist’s office which contains genuine dental instruments used at the time. One look and you’ll be glad modern dentistry has come so far!

The Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh was founded in 1505 but didn’t open to the public until 1832. The museum was first used by Edinburgh’s thriving medical community, but now it teaches the public about how diseases were treated over the centuries.

The displays of bones, skulls, tissues, scientific instruments, photographs and art demonstrate how surgical practices have evolved over time and how they came to work the way they do today.

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Why you should visit Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh even if you are squeamish

With many of the exhibits in the Surgeons’ Hall Museum having a rather macabre nature, it’s important you understand that the museum treats all human remains with dignity and visitors are encouraged to follow suit.

The specimens in jars were once part of real people who helped medical advancements and, with respect, have helped the development of understanding and treating diseases to improve the future of medicine.

Even if you are a bit squeamish and can’t handle specimens in jars, all is not lost. The Surgeons’ Hall Museums in Edinburgh still has a lot to offer! Skip out on The Pathology Museum and check out the rest of the exhibits to learn all about medical history and dental history in Edinburgh.

The Surgeons’ Hall Museums offers weekend tours to gain a greater insight into Edinburgh’s gruesome medical history. Be sure to check out Blood and Guts: The Twists and Turns of Edinburgh’s Medical History Walking Tour every Saturday and Sunday.

The entrance to the Surgeons Hall Museum in Edinburgh - the entrance features a large statue of human hands made of metal
The entrance to the Surgeons’ Hall Museum

Visit the Surgeons’ Hall Museums in Edinburgh

Address: Nicolson Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9DW

Hours: Open Everyday between 10:00-17:00

Admission: Adults £7

Website: www.museum.rcsed.ac.uk

Directions: The entrance to the Surgeons’ Hall Museums is past the William Playfair Building which faces the main road. Continue past the side of the building towards the rear. The entrance to the museum is the door at the back on the left.

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Comments 10

  1. Yes, it’s probably a really good thing that medicine has come so far. I still don’t like going to the dentist though, it’s because of those darn needles that they use for the freezing!

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      Author

      Agreed, the dentist is still awful. I mean I am glad we are where we are now but I wonder what the future of dentistry will hold!

  2. Good post. I enjoyed visiting recently after living in Edinburgh all my life and never going in. My favourite parts included the improvement in treatment in wars from the 1800s to today and the history of surgery section. I decided if your surgeon was from a time where their tools were stored in wooden boxes or had fancy designs carved into them, you probably won’t be making it out of there.

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      I am so glad you finally visited the Surgeons’ Hall Museums! I can’t imagine how sterile the instruments were back in the days before antiseptic! And to think about the days before pain medication…! no thank you!

  3. Loved this article! Definitely a place I would love to visit! In my profession as an occupational therapist I have had the opportunity to observe in some surgeries and loved it! Not squeamish at all! I love looking at all the old preserved specimens! Joe, however not so much! That is something that men murdered people for the physician to have bodies to study from! I will definitely be checking out this museum when we make it to Edinburgh, just don’t know when that will be!

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      Author

      Thank you! I also really love the old preserved specimens in jars! I do get that it is not for some people! You may have to venture inside without Joe!

  4. Yes! This is one of the first places I will be heading if/when we next visit Edinburgh. I love a good medical museum! And it’s nice to know that if we ever make it up to Edinburgh, Jeremy would actually be able to go to [most] of this one. I think I’ll have to visit this most excellent diseased testicle collection without him, though…

    Despite Jeremy’s slight aversion to certain aspects of medical museums (things in jars, mostly), we really enjoyed our visit to the Old Operating Theatre in London, which is surprisingly large for the tiny space it’s in. It’s fascinating (and terrifying) to learn about, and I’m so glad medical knowledge has progressed as much as it has or I’d be scared to leave the house each morning.

    Also can I just say, the pocketbook made of Burke’s skin is super creepy!

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      Author

      Yesss! I think Jeremy will be okay, he can just spend more time on the other levels while you explore the jarred specimens! The pocketbook is creepy! It makes me wonder how many other books and items made of human skin/body parts exist in the world. I know that a few other libraries have skin books! I definitely want to visit the Old Operating Theatre in London someday! Especially after reading Jeremy’s post on his visit. His torture makes me want to visit more.

  5. Wow! What a museum. I would definitely visit although somehow I never made it to the Bodies exhibit when that was around. Actually, I think it’s still around. I didn’t realize! I’m definitely more of an explorer since blogging so I should check it out. I’ll have to read some murder mystery book set in NYC and then go to the Bodies museum. Speaking of murder, oh my god, Burke and Hare! Geez. I clicked on your link to read more about them. I don’t know why but I’m always drawn to those kind of stories. I think it’s because I want to try to understand how someone can be so horrible but of course there never is any kind of understanding of that. Killing just to make money. Ugh. I mean it still happens today in one form or another. But this scheme is just horrid. And obviously that doctor had to know something sketchy was going on. It’s such a crazy thing because that scheme also probably helped advance medicine. I’m sure it did. So icky. I think stuff like that is also discussed in the Bodies exhibit here.
    Crazy stuff!
    Another awesome post!! You’re continuing to fuel my desire to go to Scotland.😊

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      Author

      You know, I have also never made it to a bodies exhibit! Let me know how it is when you go. I can’t wait to read the post when you find an NYC murder mystery book to go on a literary date with!

      Yeah, Burke and Hare were so greedy! Money over morals, that’s for sure. The doctor definitely paid for his crime of being involved with them! He lost respect and more! I will do a podcast on the duo in the new year. Thanks for your comment!

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