05/03/2021

DR KAHN'S OXFORD STREET MUSEUM



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. 

There were explicit displays showing various defilements of the 'sacred body beautiful' from venereal disease. Visitors would be horrified and titillated at the same time. Some may have learned the facts of life, or else been lectured on the dangers caused to the lungs from smoking. There were also sensible rejections of beliefs that fetal abnormalities were caused by pregnant mothers having overactive imaginations. (This concept of 'maternal impression' was given as the reason for Joseph Merrick's deformities. Known as the Elephant Man and displayed as a freak due to tumours upon his body, his family insisted that his mother had been knocked over 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. But, such exhibits were not open to the general public who gathered in great numbers to view anatomical wax models at Simmons's Waxworks in High Holborn, where an anatomical Samson, with his torso opening to reveal internal organs was a source of wonder. Similarly, Signor Sarti's exhibition in Margaret Street had a wax Venus and Adonis. 




Anatomical Venus from The Wellcome Collection


Joseph Kahn followed this theme for his own museum. Having claimed to be a qualified medical physician, he opened a shop/Museum in Oxford Street. Here he displayed anatomical, surgical, and embryological collections with an emphasis on science, much 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 and see them. Eventually The Lancet expressed concern at female visitors observing such depravities, but Khan then insisted they were  midwives or nurses and the editor was satisfied, even going so far as to recommend 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, but this would lead to future tensions with the editor, Thomas Wakely, who despised all quackery, whereas Kahn went on to be known for collaborating with and promoting those who made and sold quack cures. 

The Jordan family, operating as Perry & Co, became involved in the business, providing cures for venereal disease. There were also medications and appliances for treating young men suffering 'spermatorrhoea and states of nervous exhaustion' caused by the act of masturbation. In other words, treating an illness that did not actually exist. 



Such a trade was lucrative and Kahn had soon been able to rent a lavish home in Harley Street and to ride about the town in his own private carriage. The museum also moved to a new location in the grander Piccadilly. This was all too much for those more upstanding members of the medical profession. Kahn was taken to court where it was found he had no right to call himself a doctor or to give out professional medical advice. Representatives of the Lancet also said that the museum had immoral displays, and that it sold such filthy books and pamphlets that Kahn was prosecuted on the grounds of obscenity. 




During all this, Kahn continued with his educational aims, selling his guides on diet, hygiene and sexual health, but also giving lectures on human curiosities, such a tribe born with tails found in central Africa, or exhibiting the mummified remains of a child born with several lower limbs ~ what he called The Heteradelph. However, by 1864, when under prosecution after the General Medical Council accused him of working illegally in an unlicensed practice, Kahn disappeared and was believed to have returned to Germany.  

The museum carried on, supported by the Jordans who often used names of known quacks to sell their goods and medicines. A Kahn museum was even opened in New York, and books were written in the 'doctor's' name as late as 1917. 

In London the museum was permanently closed after being charged again under obscenity laws. The Society for the Suppression of Vice was involved and, following a court case, the magistrate demanded that all the stock and exhibitions should be immediately destroyed. Somewhat dramatically, the solicitor representing the Society for the Suppression of Vice, was personally allowed to take a hammer to the models, breaking up what The Times was later to describe as being models of 'the most elaborate character, and said to cost a considerable sum of money.' 



Thanks to the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, and the Wellcome Collection for valuable information, and also to Lee Jackson of www.victorianlondon.com for the museum advertisement.

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