M. C. Cooke Lecture “The marvellous Mister Towne”

Tuesday 13th April 2021

By Lisa Ashby

Due to copyright issues, the lecture was unable to be recorded and members were made aware of this at the outset. This lecture had originally been due to have been given in April 2020 at the Gordon Museum, in London. It had been hoped that the meeting could be rescheduled for later in the year. However as the current Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent laws continue to restrict meeting in person, the decision was taken to continue with the lecture virtually via Zoom.

Steve Gill the Club President opened the meeting and welcomed the speaker and the members in attendance. Paul Smith went on to introduce our speaker Mr William Edwards. (Bill)

Bill Edwards is the Curator of the Gordon Museum of Pathology, Senior Tutor and Deputy Course director of the Extended Medical Degree Programme (EMPD) at the GKT Medical School at King’s College London (KCL). Also works with the KCL Access to Medicine and Widening Participation departments. He represents KCL with issues relating to Medical Museums, the Human Tissue Authority, Medical History and Art and Medicine. Occasionally assists various Police Forces with forensic legacy work (Cold cases). Has worked both at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital campuses continuously now for over 40 years. He has been head of department for last twenty two years. Increasingly spending time with other European Medical Museums, (ten over the last seven years) lecturing and training in Museology and Pathology techniques.

Bill began with a brief introduction to Museum and its collections. The Gordon Museum at the Guy’s Hospital Campus of KCL is the largest medical teaching museum in the UK and the GKT Medical School is the largest medical undergraduate school in Europe. The museum contains not only specimens of real pathological origin but also instruments and models. The exhibits range from c.1608 to 2019 and the collection is continually expanding. They are primarily used for teaching, although some have also been used, for example, in police investigations. The museum is licensed by the Human Tissue Authority (HTA) and admission is legally restricted to those of medical backgrounds.

People have been making observations of human anatomy and Pathology for hundreds of years. In the early 1800s training in anatomy and pathology depended not only on dissection of real life subjects but also on models and drawings. Images exist not only of pen and ink drawings but also of sculptures in materials such as wood, terracotta and wax. In Italy Gaetano Giulio Zumbo was one such person whose models were displayed at the La Specola Wax Museum. La Specola had a large team of modellers and an apparently limitless supply of cadavers. In Britain legal restrictions gave opportunities for “Resurrectionists” to provide an illicit supply of clandestinely exhumed corpses. Liberation of bodies from graves however meant that the condition and sometimes cause of death were not ideal. This led individuals such as the infamous Burk and Hare to murder; their preferred method was to get their victim drunk before sitting on the chest of the victim until they expired, another method was to suspend the victim by the ankles in a well. Both of these options provided a relatively undamaged specimen. Although illegal, hospitals bought these “no questions asked”. There were moves such as that by Sir Astley Cooper (surgeon and anatomist) to follow the German State policy whereby bodies of the poor that were not swiftly claimed were given to the state to be used in teaching. This proposal faced opposition before eventually the Anatomy Act was introduced in 1832.

In London in 1826 construction began on the Wellington Arch, London University (UCL) was opened, The Zoological Society was formed and Guy’s Hospital Medical School was opened. It was also the year that Joseph Towne makes his way to London.

Joseph Towne (b. 1806) was one of 10 children born to Rev. Thomas Towne in Royston, Hertfordshire. Towne received no formal art or medical training but was interested in art and known to enjoy making small clay models of animals. Unknown to his family Joseph had taken his interest in sculpture and anatomy and, despite not having seen one, had started making a model of a skeleton based on illustrations he had found. Using wood pulp on a metal armature his skeleton stands at approximately 3ft high. He had stored this in his bedroom atop a wardrobe, and it was only discovered when replacing it one night the wardrobe toppled and the family were alerted to the noise. Impressed by the quality of the model his father decided to send Joseph to London with his model, so aged 17 Joseph left Hertfordshire with his skeleton in a carriage. At the time of his trip Guy’s were not yet teaching anatomy and he was sent to the Webb Street School of Anatomy and Medicine, where his skeleton was seen and approved by the prominent surgeon and anatomist Astley Cooper. On his recommendation Benjamin Harrison, administrator at Guy’s Hospital, employed Towne.

That same year Towne entered his model into the Society of Arts competition where he received a Bronze Medal. Not happy with third place, the following year he entered a wax model of a brain which received the Gold Medal. Although he did not enter any further competitions, in 1851 Towne displayed his work at the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace. He exhibited a model of the head and neck showing nerves as well as a selection of models showing the embryological development of birds. Currently although the whereabouts of the preliminary drawings is known the location of the egg models remains a mystery and Bill is keen to encourage members to keep an eye out for them.

It is worth noting that aside from being self-taught Joseph was drawing his specimens and then carving them from a solid block of wax, whilst most European models were being cast. This meant that he was able to model the same subject at different points in the dissection process. In addition to models made of cadavers Towne was also asked by Thomas Addison (of Addison’s disease fame) for models of the living and this recorded subjects demonstrating such conditions as syphilis, leprosy, elephantiasis, pemphigus as well as necrotic limbs and other fungal diseases. The museum also has examples of societal diseases such as ichthyosis hystrix (sufferers were known as porcupine men) and models of disease progression. His work is of exceptional quality and accuracy and is still in use today for educational purposes. Bill shared images of some models showing Psoriasis which were particularly fine, he had used the same images when teaching and students had been unable to identify that they were wax models such was the level of detail, which included using human hair.

There remain a few models in the collection where the condition or trauma remains unknown and the museum is always happy to hear from anyone who may be able to diagnose them.

Aside from his human specimens and a limited number of embryology models Towne did some comparative modelling, including turtle, monkey and kangaroo brains and other mammals. He also made figurative busts some of which are on display at the museum of Admiral Nelson, Florence Nightingale and Sir Astley Cooper. He also made a scale copy of the tomb of Thomas Guy showing Guy with Christ which is in the chapel of St Thomas’, an exquisite copy and one of the few models signed by Towne.

Later in life Towne wrote about his scientific theories and corresponded with people such as Ernst Abbe, inventor of the Abbe condenser, but unlike his model making these were largely ignored. He went on to marry and have 10 children of his own, but he often fell out with his family including his children, redrafting his will regularly. He died in 1879 and had spent 51 years making sculptures, none of his children followed him into modelling and his skills were never passed on. Towne is buried in West Norwood Cemetery but unfortunately the grave is no longer visible as that portion of the Cemetery has been cleared for “reuse”.

Very recently the Gordon Museum has acquired a collection of around 260 modern Dermatology sculptures made by Alice Gretner, between 1955 and the 1970’s at the St. John’s Dermatology Hospital. Largely neglected and damaged they appear to be made with limited resources such as surgical gowns and medical lint with a cast wax shell, the shell is very thin and prone to breakage. These models include examples of conditions that Towne would not have encountered such as X-ray dermatitis and radiation burns. Restoration of Alice’s models are underway by the museum’s resident artist, Eleanor Crook.

The lecture concluded with a Q&A sessions. Questions raised by members included:

  • The Gordon museum collection contains circa 600 items does this represent all of Towne’s work or is there more?
    Towne is known to have created around 1000 items of work there are few known to exist in America and India; some of these are copies created by Towne.
  • Is there much medical modelling continuing today?
    Unfortunately not, most of what exists today is 18th century Italian in origin.
  • Did Towne ever create histological models?
    No the collection goes to a macro level not micro.
  • Were all of the models carved or were aspects overlaid?
    The main body of Townes’ models were carved from a block of wax with some elements being subsequently overlaid. Some work has been undertaken on Towne’s likely techniques for example extrusion of model blood vessels of molten wax from a small aperture (akin to making decorations in icing for cakes) but there are still some processes that they have been unable to reproduce.

Following on from the Q&A, Bill advised that he had been contacted by a number of organisations trying to obtain human tissue histology microscope slides. It would appear many collections have been lost or destroyed with some being digitised before being disposed of. Given the apparent shortage of these Bill is considering whether the museum should be expanding its remit to include these. A number of members advised that they had such collections and some would be willing to enter further discussions with a view to making these available.

The meeting finished with Steve Gill thanking Bill on behalf of the Club.

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