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  • Bizarre - a body part as memorabilia

Bizarre - a body part as memorabilia

Bizarre – a body part as memorabilia.

On a recent July morning I visited the Hunterian Museum in London. A particular entry in their online catalogue had aroused my interest. A member of staff found the item for me in a glass case in a specimen jar. This specimen had survived 229 years and the bomb damage of the Second World War.

So what had I gone to see and what was my interest?

I was there to see one of the kidneys removed during the autopsy of Robert Boyne Home, 1713-1786, more often know as Robert Home. Robert was an army surgeon and his final posting was to the Savoy Military Hospital in London. He had a number of children, including three who have entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) as do both his son-in-laws. While in London, Angelica Kauffman, (see ODNB) the painter, rented rooms from him and his family for a time. He and his daughter Anne Home were witnesses at her wedding to Frederick De Horn on the 20th November 1767 in St James Piccadilly.

One of his children was Robert Home, the portrait painter, (see ODNB) who had been encouraged by Angelica to pursue an artistic career.  He spent time in Dublin and then went to India about 1790/1971 and carved a successful career there as a portrait painter. Mary Wollstonecraft mentions him and his wife Suzanna a number of times in her letters during her time in Ireland and then again in London in 1789/1790. It would seem that Mary Wollstonecraft did not have high opinion of him as one time she describes him as “sly” and on another as a “snake in the grass”!

The Robert Mylne connection

One son-in-law was Robert Mylne, 1733-1811, (see ODNB), the architect, surveyor for St Pauls Cathedral, engineer to the New River Company and designer and builder of Blackfriars Bridge. He had married Robert Boyne Home’s daughter Maria in 1770. Maria’s sister Anne Home, 1742-1821, (see ODNB), was a published poet and lyricist. She was a friend of Haydn, for whom she wrote lyrics, and also of Horace Walpole.

The Hunter family connection

Of course, the surgeon who had carried out the autopsy was the famous, John Hunter, 1728-1793, (see ODNB). It is his collection of anatomical specimens that form the basis of the Hunterian Museum. He had married Anne Home in 1771 so Robert Boyne Home was his father-in-law.  He had been a pupil of William Cheselden, 1688-1752, (see ODNB) and then Percivall Pott, 1713-1788 (see ODNB). Edward Jenner, 1749-1832, (see ODNB) was a pupil and they remained lifelong friends. Sir Astley Cooper, 1768-1841, (see ODNB) the anatomist and surgeon attended the lectures given by John Hunter. John’s portrait by his brother-in-law Robert hangs to the right of the entrance to the Hunterian Museum; two further pictures by Robert are in the collection. William Godwin records meeting John Hunter once in his diaries

John Hunter’s brother was William Hunter, 1718-1783, (see ODNB), an obstetrician and physician and his portrait hangs to the left of the museum entrance. He too was a collector and his material now forms the Glasgow Hunterian Museum. 

The Baillie family connection

The nephew of William and John was Matthew Baillie, 1761-1823, (see ODNB) an anatomist and physician. He too is recorded a number of times in the diaries of William Godwin.  Matthew married one of the twin daughters of Thomas Denman, 1733-1815, a physician. The other twin married Sir Richard Croft, 1762-1818, a physician and one time pupil of John Hunter. The brother of the two Denman twins was Thomas Denman, 1st Baron Denman, 1779-1854, lawyer, judge, politician and who served as Lord Chief Justice for a number of years.

Joanna Baillie, 1762-1851, (see ODNB) was a sister of at Mathew Baillie and niece of William and John Hunter. She was a playwright, poet and letter writer. Anne Home the wife of John Hunter was a close friend. Joanna knew such luminaries as William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, and Lord Byron.

Sir Everard Home

Finally, there was Sir Everard Home, 1756-1832, (see ODNB), surgeon, brother to Robert Home, the painter and Anne Home, the poet. He was a pupil of John Hunter, and later one of the executors of his will. It is now generally accepted that he destroyed many of John Hunter’s manuscripts and plagiarised his work.


It was extraordinary standing there surrounded by John Hunter’s collection, some of the items had been supplied to him by Sir Joseph Banks, 1743-1826, the explorer and botanist, three pictures by Robert Home and items which had come from the Hunters home; there was a deep sense of being transported back to that century.

Looking at the preserved kidney I pondered on the unique mix of good fortune, time, place, hard-work, talent and genes that made so many of Robert Boyne Home’s family part of a closely connected group who were so hugely influential and important to the medical and cultural life of the late C.18th and early C.19th.   

On more mundane level I also wondered how many other family historians have body parts, other than locks of hair, as memorabilia either in private possession or in a museum or archive.


Finally I would like to thank the Hunterian Museum for taking care of this particular specimen for more than two centuries. Robert Boyne Home was the great-great-great-great-grandfather of my late step-mother-in-law.

I would also like to thank the member of staff who so diligently and with much amusement found the item I was looking for, 

If anyone wishes to read the notes of the autopsy they can be seen as part of the on-line catalogue entry for this kidney -http://surgicat.rcseng.ac.uk/Details/collect/5031

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