Sex Education or Vice & Quackery? The Liverpool Museum of Anatomy

September 21, 2018

Sex Education or Vice & Quackery? The Liverpool Museum of Anatomy

Before the internet existed how did people learn about anatomy and physiology, especially the sexy bits? Books on reproductive anatomy, including cheap, illustrated texts aimed at the working classes, had been available since the dawn of printing, but a more visceral and entertaining experience could be found in displays of hyper-realistic wax models. These originated as teaching tools in museums and medical schools during the early 18th century, and by the Victorian Era had made their way to the general public via private "museums" such as the Liverpool Museum of Anatomy, whose intriguing guidebook we recently acquired.

The Liverpool Museum was one of many similar institutions in Europe and North America that, unlike the exhibits of professional medical organisations, were open to the public and presented in a way that was friendly to middle and working class people without medical training. Though they advertised themselves as educational venues, particularly regarding reproduction and the dangers of sexual vice, these museums also traded on the shock or titillation value of their exhibits, and some were targeted by the medical establishment as purveyors of vice and quackery.

From this detailed guidebook we can get a good idea of what the Liverpool Museum contained. There were exhibits on basic anatomy, including the organ systems and skeleton; digestion (titled "articles of human food, and what they are converted into"); common surgical procedures such as the removal of kidney stones; and the usual exhibits on STDs, obstetrics & gynaecology (including a caesarian section model and Anatomical Venuses), masturbation, circumcision, hermaphrodites, and “freaks of nature”. In the photo above, the back cover includes an illustration of the interior. Below, a two page spread gives a good sense of the breadth of the exhibits.

From this guidebook we also learn that the Museum's proprietor was the physician Joseph Thornton Woodhead, who describes himself in this pamphlet as “having spent thirty years in the study and treatment of diseases affecting the mental and generative organs, nervous and dyspeptic debility... decline of physical vigor, loss of mental energy, and the numerous concomitants to sexual disorganisation”. He could be consulted in person "at his establishment daily from 11am till 9pm, Sundays excepted", a convenient set-up that meant those who thought they recognised their STD symptoms in one of the exhibits could have a discrete check-up the same day.

The main audience for museums of this type was men. Admittance of women into such venues was controversial, but defended by the owners as an important educational opportunity, since women were usually in charge of family healthcare. They did visit at separate times from men, in this case Tuesdays and Fridays from 2-5pm. The booklets advertises a series of six lectures on midwifery for women, and one of the exhibits aimed specifically at them was on the “dreadful effects of tight lacing”, being “a magnificent full-length figure in wax, the model of a young lady... who having from her earliest childhood accustomed herself to the pernicious habit of tight lacing, suddenly dropped down dead in the arms of her partner while dancing”. The whiplash that modern women experience as society tells them they must make a huge effort to be sexually attractive, but also repeatedly warns that the required efforts threaten their health, is certainly not a new phenomenon.

The history of the Museum's operation is difficult to determine from historical sources (and it seems to have moved between Liverpool and Manchester several times), but in this booklet Woodhead claims that it had already been open for forty years. It appears to have been tolerated by the medical establishment until 1874, when Woodhead was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act. In court Woodhead argued that his museum was no different than the public museum operated by the Royal College of Surgeons, but the magistrate wasn't having any of it, stating that ‘he could understand museums of the character of the defendant's being connected with the hospitals and medical colleges, but when they came into the hands of private individuals they were likely to produce serious evils’ (Bates, “Indecent and Demoralising Representations: Public Anatomy Museums in mid-Victorian England”, Medical History vol. 52, January 2008). Woodhead lost the case, the Museum was closed by the authorities, and the exhibits were sold to Louis Tussaud’s waxworks show.

If any photos of the interior of the The Liverpool Museum of Anatomy exist, I was unable to locate them. This catalogue, which seems to be one of the best remaining historical sources on the Museum, is rare, and appears in the collections of only four institutions: the Wellcome Library, Harvard, the University of Rochester, and the Getty Research Institute.