It’s hard to start a paragraph with “I was strolling through London’s red light district the other evening…” without seeming a little dubious, but it’s the truth, so I shall have to begin by sounding suspect.
If your suspicions have already been raised, I doubt that if I say that I became interested in one of London’s biggest strip clubs for its importance in the history of neuroanatomy that I will seem at all convincing. But it was also the case, so I shall I have to also begin by sounding a little implausible.
The photo on the left depicts the neon drenched Windmill Theatre, the first venue in London to have risqu√© shows displaying the naked bodies of young women to breathless crowds of young men.
In the 1930s the owners realised there was a loophole in the law, and that if the naked girls stood still, they weren’t acting and so weren’t subject to legislation banning nude actors. Decades of titillating ‘living statue’ shows followed, using increasingly inventive ways of presenting the spectacle of the unclothed and unmoving girl.
The theatre and the Windmill Girls, like the one on the right, became legendary, even being the subject of a recent Hollywood movie. Time could not stand still, however, and with changing morals, inevitably, the law changed, and along with it, the theatre. It now operates as a standard lap dancing club in the centre of Soho.
While the Windmill Theatre advertises its pedigree in large strips of red neon, the seemingly nondescript building to the right has nothing but a modest blue plaque to mark its heritage, but it drew similarly excited crowds wanting to glimpse the anatomy of the naked.
The plaque reads “Hunter, William. This was the home and museum of Dr William Hunter, Anatomist (1718-1783)”. While the plaque and the association with one of history’s great anatomists gives it an air of respectability that the gleaming Windmill lacks, it was no less salacious in its day.
For over a thousand years, medical men had used the 2nd century Greek physician Galen as their guide to the structure of the human body. The trouble was, Galen was often wrong and his work had only recently been challenged owing to a taboo over dissecting the dead.
Two local men decided that Galen would have to go, and thankfully for us, they were riotously successful. William Hunter, to whom the Soho plaque is dedicated, is now famed for his contribution to anatomy, and his brother, John Hunter is considered the first scientific surgeon – the founder of modern surgery.
The Hunter brothers were living in a time when the taboo over cutting up corpses was slowly being broken, but dissections were still considered seedy. A kind of edgy horrorshow for the strong of stomach and certainly not for the ladies.
To compound the air of disgust, bodies were acquired on a ‘no questions asked’ basis, and many were rumoured to be from the murdered poor, or from bodies stolen from graves.
On one horrific occasion in 1784, the physician John Sheldon, proprietor of the Blenheim Street School of Anatomy, was presented with his recently deceased sister by one of the school’s regular ‘suppliers’.
But the first of these independent school’s of anatomy was opened by William and John Hunter, on Great Windmill Street, where the famous strip club now stands. William Hunter (shown on the left) actually lived on the same site, with his brother living round the corner, in Golden Square, before moving to a large house in the prestigious Leicester Square where his bust can still be seen.
One of the school’s star pupils was Sir Charles Bell, the noted physician who revolutionised the understanding of the nervous system through his careful anatomical dissections and clinical studies, and whose name still resides in our bodies through numerous eponymous labels and disorders that scatter the neurology textbooks.
The Hunter brothers did more than just tutor, however, they catalogued – virtually every new discovery, anatomical oddity and grotesque pathology they found.
This systematic study led to many new discoveries, particularly in comparative anatomy and the understanding of the nervous system. In fact, you can still visit the Hunter’s collection, at the Royal College of Surgeon’s Hunterian Museum, which, as I’ve noted before, is full of neuroanatomical curiosities.
Great Windmill Street has hosted anatomists, professional and pornographic, for centuries, and still continues its proud tradition, although not necessarily in the form that the Hunters would have imagined.
So that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.