In my novel, The Fascination, one of the settings is an anatomy museum and shop in Oxford Street - with many of the details based on one that did exist. My own museum proprietor is known as Doctor Summerwell, although his personality is not in any way related to the real Doctor Kahn ...
In the Victorian era Dr Joseph Kahn's Anatomical and Pathological Museum was a great tourist destination. It ran for 22 years despite several court cases arising from anti-vice and medical campaigners who attempted to close it down. But, in 1851, when the establishment was opened, despite it being named as a gloomy sepulchre of pathological horror, there was enormous interest in response to advertisements, such as this from the Daily News on April 2nd, 1851 ~
DR. KAHN'S GRAND ANATOMICAL MUSEUM, 315 Oxford Street, is now OPEN from 10 o'clock in the morning till 10 o'clock at night. Popular Lectures, explanatory of the Structure and Functions of the Human Body, and illustrated by models, will be delivered daily by an English medical gentleman, at the following hours, viz., 11,1,3,5,7, and 9 o'clock - Admission 2s.
Visitors would be both horrified and titillated by the explicit displays showing various defilements of the 'sacred body beautiful' from the ravages of venereal disease. Some may have also gone there to learn more of the facts of life, or else to have been lectured on the dangers caused by smoking. There were sensible rejections of widely-held beliefs that foetal abnormalities were often caused by pregnant mothers having overactive imaginations. (This concept of 'maternal impression' was given as the reason for Joseph Merrick's deformities, when extensive tumours growing on his body led to him being known as The Elephant Man - with his family telling the story that his mother had been knocked down by a fairground elephant when she was carrying her son.)
Such a museum was nothing new. John Hunter's famed collection, established in the 18th century, was purchased by the government in 1799 for the Royal College of Surgeons. Those exhibits were not opened up to the general public who still found their entertainment by gathering in great numbers to view anatomical wax models at Simmons's Waxworks in High Holborn. There, an anatomical Samson with his torso opened up to reveal internal organs was a source of lurid wonder. Similarly, Signor Sarti's exhibition in Margaret Street had a wax Venus and Adonis.
Joseph Kahn followed this theme for his own museum. Having claimed to be a qualified medical physician, he opened a shop and Museum in Oxford Street. Here he displayed anatomical, surgical, and embryological collections with an emphasis on science, recommended for the enlightenment of families and schools. The more morbid effects of venereal disease were kept in private rooms, supposedly only for eyes of trainee medical men. But, in reality, any adult who could pay the entrance fee could go along and see them. Eventually The Lancet expressed concern at female visitors observing such depravities. But Dr Khan then insisted they were there in a professional capacity for midwives or nurses. This left the editor satisfied, even recommending the venue as a source of valid learning.
The museum was threatened again when a competitor (Reimers's Museum) encouraged a young boy to formally complain that Kahn had interfered with him. Once again the Lancet came to Kahn's defence, although the editor, Thomas Wakely, was severely disappointed when Kahn began promoting and selling quack medicines.
The Jordan family, operating as Perry & Co, became involved in the business, providing cures for venereal disease. There were also appliances for treating young men suffering the condition of 'spermatorrhoea' or 'states of nervous exhaustion' brought on by masturbation. In other words, they were treating a natural bodily function as if it were an illness.
The trade was lucrative. Kahn was soon able to rent a lavish home in Harley Street and to ride about the town in his own private carriage. The museum was moved to a new location in Piccadilly which was altogether grander. However, this proved too much for the more upstanding members of the medical profession. Kahn was charged and taken to court where it was found he had no right to call himself a doctor, or to offer medical advice. Representatives of the Lancet also claimed the museum's displays were sordid and immoral, and the owner sold what bordered on pornographic books and pamphlets - leading to Kahn being prosecuted on the grounds of obscenity.
During this upheaval Kahn continued selling his guides on diet, hygiene and sexual health. He also gave lectures on human curiosities - such a tribe born with tails that had been found in Africa, or the mummified remains of a child born with several legs which he called The Heteradelph.
However, by 1864, the General Medical Council struck again and accused him of working illegally in an unlicensed practice - at which point Kahn disappeared, perhaps returning to Germany.
The museum carried on, supported by the Jordans who still sold quack goods and medicines. Kahn's name was even used to promote a museum in New York. Books with his name on the cover were still being published as late as 1917.
In London the museum was permanently closed. The Society for the Suppression of Vice had been also involved and, following another court case when the magistrate demanded that all the stock and exhibitions be immediately destroyed. Somewhat dramatically, the solicitor representing the Society was then personally allowed to take a hammer to the models, breaking up what The Times described as items of 'the most elaborate character, many of which were worth a considerable sum of money.'