Displaying the Dead The Musée Dupuytren Catalogue

When Paris’ infamous museum of anatomical pathology closed its doors in 2016, a controversial collection disappeared from view. Daisy Sainsbury explores the history of the Musée Dupuytren, and asks what an ethical future might look like for the human specimens it held.

November 22, 2022

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Photograph of skulls afflicted with necrosis, most likely from syphilitic individuals, from the second atlas volume of Charles-Nicolas Houel’s Catalogue des pièces du musée Dupuytren (1877–1880) — Source.

For years, the Musée Dupuytren in Paris was the site of an unusual pilgrimage. Students, medics, linguists, and neuroscientists would travel to the city of lights in search of Louis Victor Leborgne. Not the actual Leborgne – he had died in 1861 – but his brain, which had been sealed in a glass jar, preserved in a fixative solution, and displayed on a shelf at eye level in this museum of anatomical pathology. A brain in a jar, you might think, looks like any other brain in a jar. Yet Leborgne’s brain was of particular historical importance. Raised in Moret-sur-Loing, a commune known for its tanneries, the former craftsman had suffered from aphasia for most of his adult life: he could understand everything he heard, but, whenever he tried to speak, the only thing Leborgne could say was a single, non-sensical syllable: “tan”. Leborgne became a patient of the French physician Paul Broca, and when he died aged fifty-one, Broca conducted an autopsy. The doctor found a lesion on the left frontal lobe, which supported his theory that speech production was localized (in what is now known as Broca’s Area). This revolutionised our understanding of language and its disorder, and, by cementing the idea that cognitive functions could be mapped to specific parts of the brain, laid the foundations of modern neuroscience.

A visitor to the Musée Dupuytren did not have to be a neuroscientist to appreciate the museum’s collections. Since its inauguration in 1835, members of the public came to gaze at skeletons and pickled body parts, skulls impaled by metal rods, anatomical wax models depicting rare defects and diseases — and, in the process, discover something of the history contained in this morbid cabinet of curiosities. During the nineteenth century, when a trip to the Paris Morgue represented a fun day out for the family, the museum pulled in large crowds with an appetite for the gruesome and the grotesque. Visitor numbers, while not publicly available, are thought to have dwindled over time. During the 1990s, concerns began to grow about the future of the museum. This intensified in the decades that followed as museums in France and abroad came under increased scrutiny for some of the objects in their collections. The debate originally centred around artworks and artefacts obtained during colonial rule, but soon extended to a broader discussion about the ethics of exhibiting human remains.

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Mounted photographs of the Musée Dupuytren’s interior by Antoine Joseph Charles Lansiaux, 1918 — Source.

It was not a complete surprise, then, when the Musée Dupuytren announced it would be closing its doors for good in 2016 — officially, because the premises had fallen into a state of disrepair and did not meet accessibility requirements. Its collections were transferred to the basement of the Sorbonne University’s Pierre and Marie Curie campus where they can now be visited by students and researchers exclusively on request. There are currently no plans for the museum to reopen. Anyone wanting to discover more about the Musée Dupuytren and its contribution to the history of medical science must make do with Charles-Nicolas Houel’s Catalogue des pièces du musée Dupuytren (Catalogue of artefacts in the Dupuytren Museum).1 This five-volume inventory, published between 1877 and 1880, detailed the six thousand or so specimens in the museum’s collection at the time, accompanied by some eighty-five black-and-white photographs.2

The museum was founded from a bequest by Guillaume Dupuytren (1777–1835). Dupuytren was a celebrated surgeon, anatomist, trepanning enthusiast, and doctor to Napoleon Bonaparte, whose haemorrhoids he allegedly treated. Although little-known today, his name crops up time and time again in nineteenth-century literature. He appears in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856) and Dictionnaire des idées réçues (1911–1913), and counted Flaubert’s father as one of his medical students. Among his patients was Marie-Henri Beyle, otherwise known as Stendhal. The two men belonged to the same masonic lodge and the novelist would send him copies of his books, before their friendship swiftly cooled — the fate of many, if not most, of Dupuytren’s relationships.

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Detail of a lithographic caricature, lampooning “moral, religious, literary and scenic” figures, by J. J. Grandville for the series Les bacchanales de 1831. The surgeon Dupuytren gazes out at the viewer in the garb of an undertaker, sandwiched between the Dutch writer and actress known as La Contemporaine (Maria Versfelt / Ida Saint-Elme) and the crazed Abbé de Lamennais. In the background, “the new pope” (Gregory XVI?) dances with a papesse — Source.

But it was Balzac who made real space in his literary oeuvre for this figurehead of scientific progress. In La Comédie humaine, the writer’s interlinked collection of more than one hundred novels, short stories, and essays, Dupuytren appears under the guise of the fictional surgeon Desplein, trepanning the eponymous hero in the novel Pierrette (1840) and operating on Madame Mignon’s cataracts in Modeste Mignon (1844). In 1836’s La Messe de l’athée (The Atheist’s Mass), Balzac dedicates an entire short story to unpicking the contradictions of this “transient genius” who “flashed across science like a meteor”.3 He is depicted as coming from humble beginnings, hauling himself up the social ladder thanks to his unbridled ambition and a propensity for hard work. “His enemies”, Balzac wrote, “attacked his odd moods and his temper whereas, in fact, he was simply characterized by what the English call eccentricity”.4 Balzac’s is a somewhat generous take. The real-life Dupuytren’s “moods” were well-documented, and while jealousy may have played a role, he was on most accounts power-hungry, tyrannical with his students, and scornful of mediocrity. He suffered from a persecution complex and was so eager for control that he dictated the findings of his own autopsy in advance.5

After Dupuytren’s death, the museum’s collection grew from 1,000 artefacts (mostly bone specimens) to the 6,000 inventoried in Houel’s 1877–1880 Catalogue, and now amounts to over 15,000 items in the Sorbonne’s basement archives. Donations came from medical societies such as the Anatomical Society of Paris, famous physicians like Broca and Dominique-Jean Larrey, but also many lesser-known surgeons hoping to secure their place in history through their inclusion in the museum. With specimens dating from 1752 to the 1920s, the collection charts a key period in the history of medicine, where the pace of development was unprecedented. They attest to the explosion in research on patients and their cadavers in the wake of the French Revolution, when hospital regulation was minimal. Animals, too, were subjected to this appetite for experimentation. The Catalogue describes transplants and amputations performed on rabbits, dogs, and guinea pigs, all of which either died shortly after or were “sacrifié” (“sacrificed”) to expedite the subsequent autopsy.

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Photographs of a fractured lower law (item 53 E) and the partial skull of a woman who was trepanned nine times (item 54), from the first atlas volume of Charles-Nicolas Houel’s Catalogue des pièces du musée Dupuytren (1877–1880) — Source.

The Catalogue reflects the range of treatments available to patients over time – some surprisingly advanced, others markedly less so. One entry refers to the skull of a young woman who, after suffering concussive episodes brought on by a fall, was trepanned no less than nine times — and this, before the widespread use of anaesthesia.6 Other entries describe successful operations that nonetheless resulted in death from ensuing infections, as antiseptics were not used in surgery until 1865. More recent additions to the collection demonstrate the tentative beginnings of medical technologies. A hand, preserved in fixative in the early 1910s, exhibits gangrene resulting from exposure to radiation without proper protection. After Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895, X-ray machines were quickly rolled out, not only in the medical domain but in shops and fairgrounds too, where paying customers could have a go on this new-fangled apparatus, returning home with scans of their skulls and the contents of their handbags. In the time it took to discover the harmful effects of radiation, many pioneering radiologists and shop-floor operators alike presented with similar injuries. In parallel, the Dupuytren collection demonstrates what uses medical imaging was put to: X-rays taken during World War I show how neurologists Jules Dejerine and Augusta Dejerine-Klumpke were able to locate and extract bullets and shrapnel from wounded soldiers.

Many of the pathologies described in Houel’s Catalogue are now increasingly rare. Rates of syphilis, typhoid, tuberculosis, and rickets have dropped substantially in most parts of the world thanks to new treatments or improved diet, sanitation, and living conditions. Smallpox — a deadly epidemic in eighteenth-century France — was last detected in 1977. Likewise, many of the gravest birth defects listed in the Catalogue are now picked up early during prenatal screening. But perhaps more interesting is the glimpse the Catalogue offers of society at the time. Poor labour conditions are reflected in the significant number of workplace injuries: the fractured skulls of construction workers who’d fallen from scaffolding or quarrymen felled by landslides and loose rocks. One particularly gruesome specimen is the hand of a factory worker ripped off in an accident involving heavy machinery, heralded in the Catalogue as a valuable demonstration of the tendons system. In a period dominated by bloodshed (not least the Seven Years’ War, the French Revolutionary, and Napoleonic Wars), there are body parts of young soldiers as well as bystanders caught up in social unrest: a man shot in the head in the 1848 June Days uprising and a fifteen-year-old girl hit by a grenade in Orsini’s 1858 failed assassination of Napoleon (where around 156 onlookers were injured and 10 killed).

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Left: photograph of a rickets patient’s skeleton, thought to have been a young woman at the time of death, afflicted with thoracolumbar scoliosis (item 521). Right: photograph of a 28-year-old mechanic’s hand and tendons, ripped off when his shirt became caught in heavy machinery (item 10), and a severed big toe with its extensor tendon (extensor hallucis longus) attached (item 9). From the second and third atlas volumes of Charles-Nicolas Houel’s Catalogue des pièces du musée Dupuytren (1877–1880) — Source: left, right.

Beyond this, the catalogue contains the expected array of ordinary human misfortune that might not look so different to a Saturday night in any modern-day emergency room: patients who fell downstairs, off ladders, walls, and chairs; others caught up in scrapes and brawls; one man hit over the head with a plank. An entry dating from 1849 echoes the incredulity of twenty-first century doctors, forever bewildered by the foreign objects that find their way into their patients’ bodies. In his report, the surgeon Stanislas Laugier describes a fifty-three-year-old man suffering from unexplained leg pain and shifty in his responses: “We were unable to ascertain if he was a regular brandy drinker nor what his lifestyle was like. From his embarrassed explanations, we can assume that he was not telling the truth”.7 Despite treatment — eighty leeches applied to the leg and foot — the patient died shortly after his admission to hospital. In the autopsy, a five-centimetre-long woman’s hairpin was found in the left ventricle of his heart.

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Photograph of a heart inflicted with acute pericarditis (item 10), and a heart containing a hairpin in the left ventricle (item 38), from the fourth atlas volume of Charles-Nicolas Houel’s Catalogue des pièces du musée Dupuytren (1877–1880) — Source.

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Photograph of a fatal transverse sternum fracture (item 6 A), suffered by a 63-year-old man knocked down by a cart, and fractured ribs, from the first atlas volume of Charles-Nicolas Houel’s Catalogue des pièces du musée Dupuytren (1877–1880) — Source.

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Photograph of stomach fistula (item 104), from a 40-year-old woman named Gorée, and an ulcer that was in the process of healing (item 118), from the fourth atlas volume of Charles-Nicolas Houel’s Catalogue des pièces du musée Dupuytren (1877–1880) — Source.

The Musée Dupuytren was founded with a clear, pedagogical purpose, yet many visitors were drawn less by the opportunity to learn as by the chance to ogle real human remains for their shock or entertainment value. As a museum of anatomical pathology, the collection reflected a panoply of illness and diseases, as well as physical and intellectual disabilities. It housed the skeleton of Marco Cazotte or “Pipine” (1741–1803) — a man born with Phocomelia Syndrome, a rare birth defect leaving him with no arms and legs, his hands and feet being attached directly to the torso. In his lifetime, Cazotte earned an income as a fairground attraction, one of the few ways that someone with this disability could make a living at the time. The question of whether the museum’s displays represented a continuation of the same fairground dynamic is a reasonable one to ask. In recent decades, the Musée Dupuytren was keen to distance itself from its reputation as an anatomical “horror show”, with guided tours stressing the scientific, educational value of its collections. But at other points in its history, it seems to have leant into its voyeuristic appeal. In the 1920s and 30s, waxwork exhibits depicted gory crime scenes pulled from the headlines.8 Other items previously on display — a six-footed pig, a two-headed cat — were of equally tenuous educational value, bringing little to the study of human anatomical pathology.

In accounting for the Musée Dupuytren’s falling visitor numbers, it would be too simplistic to suggest that our appetites have changed since 1835. In the era of true-crime documentaries, which often include real footage of murder scenes and dismembered bodies, morbid curiosity seems as “alive and well” as ever. Nonetheless, societal attitudes have shifted over the years, with the boundaries of acceptability redrawn. Today, visitors would feel less comfortable confronted with some of the specimens in the Dupuytren collection: foetuses and premature babies with birth defects; body parts of indigenous patients brought back from French colonies; the throat of a man with an intellectual impairment who choked on a plate of potatoes. They might wonder about the historical power dynamics between doctors and their patients that led to the latter’s inclusion in the collection, as well as what forms of consent — if any — were given. In the twenty-first century, these are exactly the kinds of questions that should have been addressed in the museum’s curation. But, as both scholars and members of the public have pointed out, the signage in the museum provided limited information.9

During the final decades of the Musée Dupuytren’s existence, museums in France and abroad found themselves in a climate of increased scrutiny, particularly with regard to exhibits removed from their homelands in a colonial context. In 2002, the remains of Sara Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman known by the pejorative term “the Hottentot Venus”, were returned to South Africa for proper burial. During her lifetime (1789–1815), Baartman was put on display at freakshows in England and France for her steatopygic body type (characterised by large fat deposits on the buttocks). After death, her body was dissected, her genitalia and brain were preserved in jars, and her skeleton was displayed at the Musée de l’homme, an anthropology museum in Paris. Her skeleton was removed from public view in 1974 and kept in storage until the French Senate voted to repatriate it twenty-eight years later. The Senate’s decision, while clearly correct, destabilised the regulatory framework that had previously protected the contents of public museums as an intrinsic part of France’s heritage and therefore “inalienable public property”.10 It also ushered in a wave of further restitutions. In 2010, the heads of nineteen Māori warriors were returned from French public collections to New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa; four years later, the skull of the indigenous Kanak chief, Ataï, who led an 1878 rebellion against colonial French rule in New Caledonia, was also repatriated.11

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Handcoloured engraving by George Loftus deriding a caricature of Sara Baartman, “La Venus Hottentote”, ca. 1814 — Source.

In parallel, a high-profile scandal surrounding the 2009 “Our Body” exhibition raised questions about the ethical and legal status of exhibiting human remains more broadly. Ran by a private events company, the exhibition staged real human bodies in various poses — playing chess, riding an exercise bike — and had travelled from several cities in the United States to Lyon and Marseille in France, before being banned by a court in Paris. The ruling alluded to a recently introduced law specifying that the “respect, dignity and decency” owed to a human body while alive should also apply after death.12 The judge deemed the exhibition to be in contradiction of this law by commodifying human bodies exclusively for profit. In 2009, a court of appeal upheld this decision, but for different reasons. It ruled that the exhibition’s organisers were not able to provide sufficient proof that the people whose bodies appeared in the show had given their consent.13

To this day, French law permits national museums and hospital- and university-based institutions like the Musée Dupuytren to exhibit human remains for artistic, cultural, scientific, or pedagogical purposes, as long as their dignity is preserved. But following the spate of restitutions and the “Our Body” ruling, by the 2010s, the fate of other morally questionable exhibits had never been more uncertain. Consequently, when the Musée Dupuytren closed in 2016, speculation abounded about the reasons behind this decision. If, as the Sorbonne University’s press release would suggest, the state of the premises were to blame, then why was there no plan to renovate or relocate the museum to a more suitable site? Did concerns about the appropriateness of its exhibits play a role, as the inevitable trickle of “political correctness gone mad” opinion pieces proposed? The university has kept quiet on the matter, and when I put these questions to a representative of the Dupuytren collection, they declined to comment. However, in a research paper published in 2020, Eloïse Quétel, who has been in charge of the Dupuytren collection since 2017, shed some light. She described the university’s decision as being motivated by three factors: “to assess the state of the collections related to its conservation”, “to bring the building up to health and safety standards”, and finally, “to reflect specifically on the ethical and deontological issues related to the exposure of human remains”.14

Those reflections will presumably include a discussion of what conditions must be met to justify exhibiting a human body after death. Informed consent? Demonstrable scientific, historical, or cultural value? Time elapsed since death? (Mummies in the Louvre seem to have been spared the concern surrounding more recent human remains.) A further question to consider is what we mean when we talk about dignity. Is dignity better served in a basement archive rather than a public museum because the motivations of visitors can be filtered by profession or institutional affiliation? By rethinking the collection’s curation, situating it in its historical context and addressing the more uncomfortable aspects of its past, could the Musée Dupuytren reopen to the public again? There are presently no firm plans, but for those who believe the collection should have a place in the public domain, there is some good news on the horizon. Quétel is currently working on a database that will catalogue each item in the collection along with any available information about the patient, their pathology, and the doctor who treated them. She hopes to make it freely-accessible online in the future.

Daisy Sainsbury is a British writer and translator based in Paris. She completed a PhD and post-doctoral research fellowship in French literature at the University of Oxford and is the author of Contemporary French Poetry (Legenda, 2021). She has written short stories, reviews and essays for publications such as Literary Review, ArtReview, Wasafiri, 3:AM Magazine and The London Magazine, and is currently working on her first novel.

The text of this essay is published under a CC BY-SA license, see here for details.