Postcard from... Montpellier


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The Independent Online

It’s not often that you step into a museum and see a two-headed baby suspended in a jar of formaldehyde. It’s labelled among the other “tératologies” – from the Greek word meaning monsters. But this isn’t an ordinary museum: the Museum of Anatomy is part of Montpellier's faculty of medicine which dates from the 12th century and is the oldest operating medical faculty in the Western world.

Nostradamus studied here. So did Rabelais. Nowadays, however, the average tourist can visit this macabre temple to medical research – providing they book through Montpellier’s tourist office. They don’t allow children under 12. Pregnant women aren’t allowed either. Presumably the fear is that women clapping eyes on what happened to other unfortunate mothers in the past could harm their pregnancies.

The grotesque specimens are as compelling as they are shocking. Deformed skulls;  an ovarian cyst larger than a basketball;  tiny skeletons showing conjoined twins that never survived.

I see a skull that’s so peculiarly shaped that I wonder if any human could have given birth to it. Then I realise I’ve strayed into the animal section and I’m looking at a primate. Still, it wasn’t that different from some of the deformed shapes I’d seen earlier. As my guide Carol said: “Aren’t you glad you’re living in 2015 and not in those times?”