The Curious Tale of Martin Van Butchell

Author: Matt Gedge

I was asked to do a presentation on Great Windmill Street just off Piccadilly Circus, and was inevitably drawn to the former home, museum and dissection theatre of the 18th century anatomist William Hunter. Slightly inappropriately, the building is now part of the Lyric Theatre playing Michael Jackson’s ode to the undead, Thriller! Research into Hunter in the googlesphere brought me tangentially and euphorically to the curious case of the eccentric Georgian dentist of Mayfair, Martin Van Butchell.

Butchell was born in 1735 in Eagle Street, near Red Lion Square, the son of a tapestry maker to George II. He became skilled in anatomy and medicine, and after serving as a pupil to the famous surgeon (and brother of William) John Hunter, he became a successful dentist and maker of trusses in Mount Street just off Berkeley Square in Mayfair.He had a great skill of treating cases of ruptures and anal fistulas, and was well sought after owing to his reputation and captivating newspaper advertisements. But despite his ability, he soon became more famous for his eccentricity, extreme, outlandish and socially unacceptable behaviour.

Hyde Park was a regular haunt of Butchell’s , where he enjoyed riding around on a white pony which he often painted with purple or black spots. He was known for his extraordinary costume and long beard, and, fearful of attack, he carried a large white bone which was reputedly used as a weapon of war in Tahiti.

Butchell’s first wife Mary died on January 14th 1775, and Butchell asked Hunter – his former tutor – and the anatomist William Cruikshank to preserve the body. Mary was filled with powdered nitre, glass eyes were inserted, she was dressed in a fine gown, and the corpse was then put in plaster of paris with a retractable glass lid so that it could be on display to his friends and visitors in the house which was also housed his practice. Despite the effort of ensuring the lips and cheeks maintained their colour using oil of turpentine and camphorated spirit of wine, the corpse was described as a ‘repulsive looking object’.

A rumour suggested that a clause in the marriage certificate provided Butchell with income so long as Mary was ‘above ground’ and that Butchell was using the display to attract more publicity.

It would seem his second wife objected, so the body was moved out of the surgery to the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

Butchell died circa 1812 but his wife’s preserved corpse remained in the college for 166 years until it was destroyed during the devastating air raids of 10th-11th May 1941.

Pictures sourced from The History of Medicine With thanks to Sue De Nim

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