‘The English gravity was not evident’
A COUPLE OF MONTHS AFTER THE DEATH of surgeon John Sheldon his long suffering wife Rebecca presented his prized anatomical specimen – the naked, embalmed body of a 24-year-old woman that Sheldon had kept in his bedchamber for over 30 years – to the Hunterian Museum attached to the Royal College of Surgeons.
For the details of this distinctly bizarre aspect of Sheldon’s life we must turn to the writings of French scientist, Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, who visited Britain around 1790. Because of the French Revolution, in which many of his friends perished, his memoirs, Voyage en Angleterre et en Ecosse, were not published until much later.
St. Fond brought with him letters of introduction to many leading scientists of the day, such as James Watt, Joseph Priestley, Sheldon, and others.
He says that one must have seen and known Sheldon “to appreciate his passion for study; animated by the fire of his character the English gravity was not evident, and his vivacity – which to some might appear extreme – was balanced by most estimable qualities”.
Faujas St Fond, in his account of the time he spent with Sheldon, relates the story of the embalmed body in great detail, showing an altogether different side to the scientist to that seen in the first two articles.
During the course of many mornings spent inspecting Sheldon’s collections of rare objects and of anatomical preparations, what most drew St Fond’s attention was a sort of mummy which occupied a conspicuous place near to the bed in the anatomist’s bedroom.
He writes of: “A kind of table of mahogany, the top of which opened with a hinge, containing an inner case of cedar wood, covered by a sheet of glass, beneath which lay the nude body of a girl of 20, with beautiful brown hair.”
When the glass was lifted, Sheldon showed how his developing embalming techniques retained the suppleness of her arms, of her breasts, and even of her cheeks, while perfectly preserving the rest of the body.
It had been thus preserved without opening the case at all for five years, but when shown to St Fond it had indeed been opened several times. He noted that “the flesh was beginning to dry and the muscles were strained, which gave to the face, though it still retained traces of great beauty, a drawn expression which partly effaced the sweetness of her features”.
The description continues: “To preserve the body it had been many times injected with a saturated solution of camphor in strong spirit, to which a little turpentine had been added, and the skin had been rubbed with finely-powdered alum.
“The viscera (internal organs) had been removed and steeped in spirit, to which camphor and resin had been added, and subsequently treated with alum and replaced. With a view to imparting more of the colour of life to the face the carotids had been injected with a coloured fluid; the body was then laid on a film of quicklime and the box hermetically sealed.”
St. Fond wanted to know who she was and why Sheldon had taken such pains to preserve the body.
He was told the girl had been Sheldon’s first love, who had succumbed to consumption. He had attended her throughout her long illness, and shortly before her death she had desired that he should embalm her body and keep it near to him.
St. Fond says he rather wished he had not heard this, for he esteemed it a somewhat ghoul-like procedure to make “de sang froid” an anatomical demonstration of the object of one’s tenderest affections, and compared it to the ancient Egyptians, who, whilst ready to avail themselves of the services of embalmers, were given to stoning them at times.
Yet he eventually concludes that Sheldon did not deserve such harsh treatment, for “he was good and sympathetic, and the courage of his act must not be set down to cynicism, but rather to a self-control not incompatible with sensibility”.
Previously published versions of this story are at odds over exactly when the embalmed body was turned over to the College of Surgeons. An article in the British Medical Journal in June 1899 suggests that the body “found its way to the College of Surgeons, where it now is in a back room, alas, no more with any semblance of life, but shrunken and as hard as a board”.
The unknown writer remarks: “What an irony of fate, that the gratification of the poor girl’s dying wish should have had no better result than that her last resting-place should be the lumber room of a great museum.
“Then, with renewed interest in the man, one goes back to his portrait to find a strongly marked but fine face, in wig and pigtail, with, especially in the profile, features perhaps a little suggestive of eccentricity, but with not a trace of hardness.”
Other evidence, however, suggests that far from parting with the body upon his marriage, Sheldon kept it in his bedroom.
In the 1830 museum catalogue the embalmed body is described as: “of a female subject aged 24, of the name of Johnson, who died of phthisis (pulmonary tuberculosis) in the Lock Hospital, about the year 1775 and left her body for dissection to Mr Sheldon, who was at that time a pupil of that charity – Presented by Mrs Rebecca Sheldon, Dec 24th 1808.”
Who was Miss Johnson? Do we know anything of her?
William Sweeting, a nephew of John Sheldon’s, told various people, including William Clift curator of the Hunterian, that his uncle’s lover had been Sarah Stone, a medical artist.
A close relative would seem to be an unimpeachable source, but Sweeting admitted that his aunt knew nothing of Miss Johnson’s true identity and so he must have had Sarah Stone’s name directly from Sheldon.
There cannot have been many female professional artists working in the 1770s. But the only Sarah Stone found who fits the description was born in 1760, a painter and illustrator of natural history subjects, was still alive and professionally active until the 1840s, long after Sheldon’s death, making it impossible for her to be the body in Sheldon’s bedroom.
There is one further sting in the tail of this story.
The Hunterian Museum has another record, which names the girl as a’Miss Johnson’, whose exhibit had been with the museum since 1775, which fits the version of events that claims Sheldon handed it over upon his marriage. Confusingly, it may well be that 1775 was the date of the girl’s death.
At some point during the 19th century Miss Johnson gained a companion, another embalmed body, that of a Maria Van Butchell.
The two were exhibited side by side until one fateful night in 1941, when the museum took a hit from a German bomb during one of many air raids on London. In the ensuring conflagration, both embalmed corpses were destroyed.