Barts Pathology Museum curator wins Major Contribution to the Understanding of Death Award thanks to her collection of 300 brains

Yes, there is such an award – and Adam Lusher met the winner

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The Independent Online

As technical curator of Barts Pathology Museum in central London, Carla Valentine certainly has brains – about 300 of them, in glass cases, preserved in alcohol or Kaiserling solution. (She particularly likes the lobotomised specimens.)

And now, at last, Ms Valentine, 33, has the coveted Major Contribution to the Understanding of Death Award – (statuette of Anubis, Egyptian god of embalming, tastefully packaged in a black, coffin-shaped box.)

She received her statuette at last Saturday’s Good Funeral Awards, from the actor Ian Lavender. Private Pike of Dad’s Army presented every award: Gravedigger of the Year, Embalmer of the Year.

“We discussed where we would like to be buried, how we would like to be disposed of,” says Ms Valentine. “But death wasn’t the whole conversation. We’re normal people, you know.”

It’s true. There is so much more to her. There is the skull of John Bellingham, who murdered the Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in 1812.

The assassin’s skull resides in the museum’s VIP section, the historical cabinet, with three other favourites: the chimney sweep’s cancer of the scrotum samples. These, Ms Valentine explains, were scrotums of huge historical symbolism.

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A lobotomised brain preserved in Kaiserling solution (Teri Pengilley)

They were representatives of the disease analysed in the late 18th century by Sir Percivall Pott, of St Batholomew’s, the hospital within which the pathology museum is located. By linking the cancer to the sweeps’ exposure to soot, Sir Percivall provided arguably the first success for epidemiology, the modern science of establishing the causes of disease.  

Ms Valentine shows us another: “tight lacer’s liver”, in a jar. The 1907 catalogue entry attributed the organ’s deformity to the deceased’s lacing her corset too tightly.

Ms Valentine, however, now considers it a naturally occurring variation of normal liver shape. “I have been unable,” she insists, “to find any examples of long-term damage caused by corset tightening.” And she has plenty of livers to look at.

She surveys the cavernous magnificence of the museum’s Grade II-listed Victorian interior: rows of glass cases, 5,000 exhibits spread over ground and mezzanine floors – ground floor: vintage organs at least 100 years old; first floor: brains, bones and tendons; second floor: livers, spleens and stomachs.

“I love being here alone, at night,” she says. “It’s beautiful. I was reading A-level human biology textbooks when I was 10,” she adds. “I never liked Enid Blyton.

“Everybody else went to Thailand for their year off. I went to be an embalmer’s assistant in Worthing.”

To become a qualified anatomical pathology technologist, she explains, you need practical experience of handling dead bodies. 

But there is none of the ghoulish disrespect uncovered in the Alder Hey body parts scandal. Ms Valentine is determined to “honour” the exhibits.

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The skull of John Bellingham, the only person in Britain who successfully assassinated a Prime Minister, in May 1812 (Teri Pengilley)

Which brought us to her office, and her mission. Jazz tinkles from the CD player. Three yet-to-be-catalogued skulls peer from the bookcase. Ms Valentine is, she explains, part of “the new death-positive movement. It’s not morbid to talk about death.”

The respectful display of bodies or body parts could have an impact way beyond almost anything else:

“If I show someone the intricacy of a lung, they might decide to stop smoking. If I could show teenage boys the effects, not of cartoonish computer-game violence, but of real brutality – the scalp upstairs with holes made by a gangster’s stiletto – they might stop carrying knives.”

As was proved by The Independent’s front page showing the body of three-year-old refugee Aylan al-Kurdi, “When you show human remains, suddenly people give a damn.”

But in less traumatic circumstances, syas Ms Valentine merrily, “thinking about death lifts your mood.

“By contemplating your own mortality, you realise every day is precious and decide to get the most out of life.

“The Koreans go to funeral therapy. You discuss the details of your funeral and emerge feeling happy.”

Her death-positive initiatives include regular event nights at the museum – going to one is the only way the public can normally visit it. 

Most romantic of all is Dead Meet, her free dating and networking website for “the death industry”.

Because, after a hard day’s work with death, you want to be with someone willing to ask, “Tell me about your day.”

“When I was a mortician, I was dating undertakers.  And my mortuary manager was married to an embalmer…”

For details of Barts Pathology Museum events see www.qmul.ac.uk/bartspathology/

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