Sunday, August 21, 2005


If you wander in the grounds of St. Bernard's Hospital, behind the Department of Corrective Medicine, to the west of the Bowes-Lyon Unit and past Block X, keep going and you will find almost obscured by foliage what looks like a very old and small church and which is in fact the oldest of the hospital's buildings, being the site of the chapel constructed in 1112 by the blind monks of the silent Order of St. Bernard under the auspices and patronage of Leon de Beauceron as a gift to Henry I. Since then, of course, the chapel has undergone extensive renovation and, indeed, has been rebuilt several times, latterly by Sir Stephen Sealyham in 1724 to the specifications of the original construction so that the present edifice exactly replicates the original chapel in every detail.

Since 1807 the chapel has been home to the Lowchen Museum and boasts one of the finest collections of pathological specimens in England. It is not open to the public and its contents are maintained and jealously guarded by the present curator, Dr. Clive Clumber, who will occasionally admit selected visitors at his own discretion, though rarely.

The Lowchen Museum is for neither the faint of heart nor the weak of stomach, for here you will see newborn babies pickled in formaldehyde, Siamese twins ripped brutally from the womb, the heads of hanged men silently screaming out at you from the confines of bell jars, severed hands with painted fingernails, skulls complete with bullet holes, a throat obstructed by a pickled onion, the face of a child who watches your every move. Indeed, all manner of anatomical splendours are on display here for those with the time, the inclination and the permission to wander among the rows of shelves and glass cases, and last week I was privileged to do just that.

Perhaps my favourite exhibit is the top of a skull with two parallel indentations running from back to front. Each is roughly a quarter of an inch wide and while one is shallow and fairly short, the other is much longer and goes right through the bone. There is an explanation on a plaque. The skull's owner sought to commit suicide by lying on his back and placing the top of his head against the blade of an industrial circular saw. His first attempt must have given him a frightful shock because he withdrew his head and had to have another go. His second attempt, plainly, was successful.