Teaching Anatomy in Dublin

‘The Irish nobility have in every family a domestic physician, who has a tract of land free for his renumeration, and who is appointed, not on account of of the amount of leaning he brings away in his head from colleges, but because he can cure disorders’.

Johann Baptista Van Helmont, Ortus Medicinae (1648).

The Library and Anatomy House in 1753. Courtesy of the Old Anatomy Museum, School of Medicine, Trinity College Dublin.

As Dr. Coakley notes, the medical practitioners of the early modern period in Dublin mostly consisted of barber-surgeons and apothecaries educated on the works of Galen (129 – c. 216 CE), some of which were translated into the Irish language. In the seventeenth century, practitioners who wanted to pursue academic studies in medicine had to look abroad. The oldest university in Ireland, Trinity College Dublin, did not have a medical faculty until the establishment of the School of Medicine in 1711, preceded and facilitated by the foundation of the Irish College of Physicians by academic John Stearne (1624–1669) in 1667 and of the Dublin Philosophical Society by William Molyneux (1656–98).[1] However the primary mover behind the foundation of the school was prominent physician Sir Patrick Dun (1642 –1714) and president of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland. Dun spearheaded a campaign to cement anatomical teaching at Trinity and submitted a bequest of his income for the purpose of building the Anatomy House in Trinity, as a centre of anatomical education in the College.

David Dickson writes on the course of the medical profession in Dublin that ‘in the mid-1780s there had been around sixty physicians and a similar number of surgeons in the city’.[2] In 1861, less than a hundred years later, physician Sir Phillip Corrigan estimated about a thousand medical students training in Dublin,[3] a demand met through the development of the School of Medicine in Trinity and the foundation of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in 1784.

 The remnants of the 18th century collection of anatomical wax models by Parisian anatomist Desnoues, for which the Anatomy Museum at Trinity College was renowned. The majority of the collection was discarded in the 20th century due to loss and damage by heavy use. Courtesy of the Old Anatomy Museum, School of Medicine, Trinity College Dublin.

Medical teaching flourished in nineteenth-century Dublin, along with an increased interest in the workings of the human body, and ongoing demand for medical training. Lacking the technological advances educators have access to today, anatomists relied heavily on dissection demonstration, as well as the use of anatomical models, illustrations and specimens to illustrate their lessons.

Medical collections of such material were developed by medical professional societies, medical schools, and private individuals. The latter were to be visited for a fee and largely contained curiosities and anatomical models of dubious educational value or accuracy. An advertisement in the Freeman’s Journal in 1866 reads as follows:


Open daily,


(Entrance, first door in North Earl street.)

This splendid Museum of Anatomy consists of the most marvellous Wonders of Nature— the Human Embryo, from the first to the ninth month; the different stages of Midwifery; also the magnificent Florentine Venus showing the Interior Organs of the Human Frame; the Grand Cesarian Operation; the effects of tight lacing; with numerous Natural and beautiful preparation; the whole affording a complete insight into the marvellous Wonders of Nature.

Open Daily from Eleven a.m. till Ten p.m.

Admission, ONE SHILLING, Catalogue Free’.[4]

Not relegated to a medical or academic audience, establishments such as the above provided, for a price, a glimpse of anatomy’s ‘wonders’ to the general public, entertainment, and perhaps titillation to its exclusively male audience. Women’s eyes were typically shielded from said wonders, at least in an academic context, until the turn of the twentieth century, with some exceptions.[5] Following paths paved in Edinburgh and London, Dublin’s Catholic University, and Trinity College opened their doors to women in 1894, and 1904 respectively.[6]

Though catering to an academic audience, university anatomical museums also garnered the interest of laypersons. The anatomical collection of Trinity College Dublin is highlighted in Wright’s Historical Guide to Dublin, published in 1825:

‘In that part of the College Park, formerly used as a bowling-green, is the new Anatomy House, built at the expense of the University, after a design of the Messrs. Morrison. It is 115 feet in length by 50 in breadth; and contains an Anatomical Lecture-room, 30 feet square: an Anatomical Museum 30 feet by 28: and three private rooms. The Dissecting-room, extending the whole length of the building, is probably the best disposed apartment for such purpose in Europe, and no means too large for the present school of surgery in Dublin.

The museum possesses some valuable preparations: those belonging to the College are unimportant, but the present professor’s (Dr. Macartney) collection, which is exhibited during lecture, contains valuable preparations of human, comparative, and morbid anatomy; and if we except the Hunterian, is second to none in the United Kingdom. The School of Anatomy in Dublin has grown into deserved celebrity, to which the facility of procuring subjects for dissection has contributed, and has drawn together a great number of students. Amongst the curiosities of the old collection in the Anatomical Museum are several extraordinary preparations and skeletons: a complete skeleton of a Grampus, with those of M’Grath the Irish giant, and Clarke, the ossified man. The former of these, who died at the age of 20, attained the height of nine feet; of the latter all the joints became bone, so that he was quite incapable of stirring, and died in the most deplorable condition.

In a small building behind the old Anatomy House are to be seen the celebrated wax models of the human figure, executed in Paris by M. Denone, and presented to the University by the Earl of Shelbourne, in 1752. (They were purchased by his lordship from Mr. Raxtrow, a statuary in London, and have since been repaired; first, under the inspection of Mr. Edward Croker, an able anatomist, and secondly, by Mr. Thomas Wetherell, surgeon)’.[7]

In the same year as Wright provided the above description, popular anatomy professor James Macartney (1770–1843) saw his labours to convince Trinity to replace the decaying structures of the Anatomy House come to fruition. The new buildings for the School of Medicine included an anatomy museum, dissection hall, lecture theatre, pathology museum and other accommodations.

A photograph of the medical school block building in 1887. The building still stands, now housing the Chemistry department and the Old Anatomy Museum and Lecture Theatre. Courtesy of the Old Anatomy Museum, School of Medicine, Trinity College Dublin.

The Old Anatomy Museum as is stands today, was built in 1825 according to Macartney’s instructions for the expressed purpose of housing the school’s anatomy collection, a large portion of which was his own personal collection. Following a heated row with the university’s administration over the building construction, Macartney left Trinity shortly after for a position in Cambridge University, taking his collection with him.

The Old Anatomy Museum, shown here in 1933. The building it is housed in was designed by Joseph Macartney and erected in 1825. Courtesy of the Old Anatomy Museum, School of Medicine, Trinity College Dublin.

Despite this loss, the collection includes a variety of specimens and artifacts of great scientific and historical importance, added to over the years by Macartney’s successors and the schools’ alumni, and benefactors. Today the collection remains in situ, and school staff are engaged in cataloguing and restoring it with the view of sharing it with the public in the future.

Anatomical models made of plaster, wax and papier-mâché were used by professors as teaching aids, alongside prepared human specimens. Courtesy of the Old Anatomy Museum, School of Medicine, Trinity College Dublin.

Text: Ms Evi Numen, Curator of the Old Anatomy Museum, Trinity College Dublin.


Alberti, Samuel JMM & Hallam, Elizabeth, Medical Museums: Past, Present, Future (London, 2013).

Coakley, Davis, Irish Masters of Medicine (Dublin, 1992).

Coakley, Davis, Medicine in Trinity College Dublin: An Illustrated History (Dublin, 2014).

Dickson, David, Dublin: The Making of a Capital City (Harvard, 2014).

Gatenby, Peter, The School of Physic, Trinity College, Dublin: a retrospective view (Dublin, 1994).

Kelly, Laura, Irish Women in Medicine c. 1880s –1920s: Origins, education and careers (Manchester, 2013).

Kirkpatrick, Thomas Percy Claude, History of the Medical Teaching in Trinity College, Dublin, and of the School of Physic in Ireland. (Dublin, 1912)

Macallister, James. James Macartney: A Memoir. (London, 1900).

O’Brien, Eoin and Crookshank, Anne, A Portrait of Irish Medicine: An Illustrated History of Medicine in Ireland (Dublin, 1984).

Wright, George N., An Historical Guide to the City of Dublin, Illustrated by Engravings, and a Plan of the City, 2nd ed. (London, 1825).

[1] Coakley, Davis, Medicine in Trinity College Dublin: An Illustrated History (Dublin, 2014).

[2]Dickson, David, Dublin: The Making of a Capital City (Harvard, 2014), p. 312.

[3] Ibid., p. 314.

[4] The Freeman’s Journal, Dublin, Ireland, 29 October 1866, p. 1.

[5] As Laura Kelly notes in Irish Women in Medicine c. 1880s –1920s, women were admitted to the Museums of Irish industry and the Royal College of Science.

[6]Kelly, Laura, Irish Women in Medicine c. 1880s –1920s: Origins, education and careers (Manchester, 2013), p. 9.

[7] Wright, George N., An Historical Guide to the City of Dublin, Illustrated by Engravings, and a Plan of  the City, 2nd ed. (London, 1825). pp 18-19.

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