Joseph Kahn’s Anatomical Museum, 315 Oxford Street, 1873

The ‘Obscene’ Doctor

Whether paying a shilling to peek at an Italian anatomical model in a grocer’s shop on the Strand, or visiting a public museum, Londoners were avid consumers of anatomy collections in the 18th and early 19th century. Yet all the city’s public anatomy museums had been closed down by the late 1870s, disgraced by accusations of obscenity.

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Two thousand people visited self-styled ‘Doctor’ Joseph Kahn’s Anatomical and Pathological Museum every week. The objects they encountered included a life-sized anatomical Venus, models of dissections and monstrous births and candid displays on the pathology of venereal disease. They might also study slides under a microscope or listen to daily educational lectures about the ‘wondrous’ structure and function of the human body.

Ladies were admitted only on specified days, when Kahn insisted the most offensive models were removed from display.

The Museum, and its educational focus, initially found favour with publications like the Lancet and Medical Times. However, the establishment turned against Kahn when he started selling quack remedies. The Lancet then labelled the Museum ‘a den of obscenity… determinedly arranged for the purposes of depraving the minds of the ignorant and unwary’.

Gallery: Quacks and Charlatans

Taken to court by The Society for the Suppression of Vice, Kahn was successfully prosecuted under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act, which made it illegal to publish texts on venereal disease and sexual health aimed at a general audience.

Gallery: Only for Medical Gentlemen (explicit content)

Kahn’s models were seized and destroyed at Marlborough Street Police Court in 1873 and the Museum was forced to close down. The same fate befell many similar institutions.

  • A Victorian courtroom scene © Sheffield Libraries, Archives and Information (Licensed under Creative Commons) View on external website
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The Ignorant Bride

The legal action taken against collections like Kahn’s transformed the public study of anatomy from a source of entertainment and wonder to a secret and shameful activity. It would take a woman distressed by her own ignorance to expose much of this anatomical knowledge again.

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