Gray’s Anatomy

ON OUR WAY FROM Hyde Park Corner to Lowndes Square (in London’s Belgravia), we wandered along a thoroughfare that was new to us, Kinnerton Street. This gently winding road is lined with mainly picturesque buildings and is punctuated by narrow cul-de-sacs, such as Capeners Close and Ann’s Close. At its southern end, the buildings along Kinnerton Street look newer than the others.

The street was originally built for dwellings of those who serviced the far grander buildings that line Wilton Crescent and Wilton Street on the Grosvenor Estate, that began to be built on in earnest during the 18th and early 19th centuries.  Kinnerton is the name of a village in Cheshire associated with the Grosvenor family who developed the Estate that includes large parts of Belgravia and Mayfair. Until well after the middle of the 19th century, the street, which was occupied by servants, shopkeepers, tradesmen, and animals, was rather a slum. In more recent years, the street, once the home of the poorer classes, has become gentrified.

Although we were unaware of it when we visited Kinnerton Street, it occupies an important place in the history of medicine. St George’s Hospital was founded in 1733 and later located in a building designed by the architect of London’s National Gallery, William Wilkins (1778-1839). It now houses the upmarket Lanesborough Hotel, which is a few yards from Kinnerton Street.

From the start of 19th century, medical education in England became more structured than before. Pupils at St George’s Hospital were:

“… required to learn anatomy at either Hunter’s, Lane’s, Carpue’s or Brookes’ schools of anatomy, which were private academies set up for this purpose.” (https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/search/archives/4c9f3048-475c-3201-9c0b-8a593ec59dc6).

After a dispute between the surgeon and anatomist Samuel Armstrong Lane (1802-1892), who had graduated at St George’s and ran one of the anatomy schools (at 1, Grosvenor place; https://livesonline.rcseng.ac.uk/), and the authorities at St George’s Hospital, the latter decided to set up its own dedicated school of anatomy, whose activities it could control.  This led to the physiologist and surgeon Sir Benjamin Brodie (1783-1862) buying a house on Kinnerton Street.

Brodie leased the house to St George’s Hospital for use as an anatomy school. It housed an anatomy theatre, a lecture room, and a museum. Until Lane’s school closed in 1863, it was one of two rival anatomy schools serving the students of St George’s. Even though students were taught medicine at St Georges from its inception, a medical school was not formally established until 1834. It was housed in the house on Kinnerton Street and inaugurated in 1835. During the opening ceremony, an Ancient Egyptian mummy was dissected. The school remained in Kinnerton Street until it was moved nearer to Hyde Park Corner in 1868.

Where exactly was the school? Ruth Richardson wrote in her “The Making of Mr Gray’s Anatomy” (published in 2008):

“In addition to its unostentatious frontage on Kinnerton Street, the medical school seems to have had its own discreet rear entrance. Old maps show there to have been an access way bridging the Serpentine River at the back of the building, by which deliveries and collections could unobtrusively be made. It connected to Williams Mews which still joins William Street via an alley … Today, though, this way across the old river has disappeared, entirely blocked by a high wall … The Kinnerton Street Medical School was a large, austere, functional place. Renamed, it still stands, dark and private, enclosed within its own solid walls.”

Based on this information, I looked at a map surveyed in 1869 and found College Place, which was located between Kinnerton Street and the short William Street. It does not appear on current detailed maps. The northern end of William Mews lay close to College Place. A modern description of Kinnerton Street (https://issuu.com/chestertonhumberts/docs/low_res_grosvenor/66) includes the following:

“Studio Place, renamed in 1931, was built as College Place in 1844. It contains Bradbrook House, which until the 1890s, was a series of schools of anatomy.”

In case you were wondering, the Serpentine River, mentioned above, was another name for the now subterranean River Westbourne, a tributary of the Thames. From the eastern end of the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park, it flows south between William Street and William Mews.

All of this, interesting as it is, becomes more interesting to the general reader, who, even if not connected with medical science, will likely be aware of  the book, “Gray’s Anatomy”, whose title inspired that of a TV series. Written by Henry Gray (1827-1861), this famous textbook of anatomy, which is still used, was first published in 1858. The first edition was dedicated to Brodie, who established the anatomy school in Kinnerton Street. In 1842, Gray enrolled as a student at St George’s Hospital and it is highly likely that he honed his knowledge of anatomy at Kinnerton Street. By 1853, Gray had been appointed a lecturer of anatomy.

In a review of a book about Gray, Caroline Rance wrote that:

“Gray worked with Henry Vandyke Carter on ‘Anatomy Descriptive and Surgical’ for twenty months in 1855-7, dissecting cadavers at St George’s Dissecting Rooms in Kinnerton Street. Carter, struggling to finance his medical studies, was a talented artist who relied on commissions such as this to keep his own body and soul together.” (https://vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/2009/03/12/the-making-of-mr-grays-anatomy-bodies-books-fortune-fame-by-ruth-richardson/).

By walking down Kinnerton Street, as we did recently, maybe we were walking where once the famous anatomist, Henry Gray, used to enjoy a spot of fresh air after hours of dissecting corpses or whilst walking to his home on nearby Wilton Street.

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