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DECEMBER 2017 | Published by RCPA

Issue #076

Morbid anatomy collection preserves Australia’s medical past for future generations

Morbid anatomy collection preserves Australia’s medical past for future generations

Mrs Elinor Wrobel

The Kanematsu Collection of Morbid Anatomy specimens located at Sydney Hospital represents a significant slice of Australia’s medical history dating from 1890 through to the 1980s. It has had a turbulent past including surviving a building demolition as well as threats to destroy it prompting curator Mrs Elinor Wrobel OAM to threaten a hunger strike. The collection has been spared and is now preserved for future generations.

Mrs Wrobel said the collection contains many treasures including early examples of melanoma, the cancerous hand of a pioneer radiologist, examples of rare fungal diseases, and the lacy skeleton of a farmer’s pelvis and femur that were eaten away by Echinococcus (hydatid cysts).

“We also have a very valuable collection of lungs including industrial lungs from coal miners, chimney sweeps, stonemasons and wharf labourers who were affected by dust from wheat and grains, and examples of asbestosis, aspirated barium sulphate and tuberculosis.”

Mrs Wrobel audited the collection about 18 months ago and found that most museum specimens date from the 1890s to the 1940s.

“I discovered this by matching pathology reports and death certificates to the specimens. Many of these reports were saved by (pathologist) Professor Stan McCarthy who had moved the collection, along with the reports and certificates, to an attic at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPAH) before the Kanematsu Institute of Pathology building where they were kept was demolished in 1985,” she explained.

The specimens were subsequently divided between Sydney Hospital, RPAH and University of Notre Dame, Darlinghurst (but only on loan to the two latter institutions). The collection at Sydney Hospital, known as The Dr E Hirst Pathology Museum, opened in 2001 with Mrs Wrobel as the first curator.

“The value of this collection saved by the foresight of Prof McCarthy and others is in preserving the past, as a valuable teaching and research resource, and as a record of inherited diseases in families. The pathology reports that we hold can be accessed by doctors upon request for this purpose.”

Visiting the museum

  • The museum is open on Tuesdays between 10am and 3pm, or by appointment for groups.
  • The guided tour takes about 1.5 hours.
  • Individuals can just turn up, but larger groups should book ahead.
  • Cost is $5 per person.
  • It is located on the 1st floor of the Nightingale Wing, Sydney Hospital, Macquarie Street, Sydney. Ph: 02 9382 7427.

A brief timeline of the Kanematsu Collection of Morbid Anatomy


Morbid Anatomy Collection began in the Old Pathology Department and Anatomy Room at Sydney Hospital.


Pathology research and accumulation of morbid anatomy specimens (specimens collected before 1890 are not in the current collection).


A pathology museum is planned.


Kanematsu Institute of Pathology is opened at Sydney Hospital and a Morbid Anatomy Museum established in this building.


The building housing the Morbid Anatomy Museum at Sydney Hospital is demolished prompting Professor Stan McCarthy to remove the collection and related material, including pathology and autopsy reports, and store them in whatever spaces he can find at the RPAH.


Premier Bob Carr allocates the 1st Floor of the Nightingale Wing at the Sydney Hospital for a museum.


The current Kanematsu Collection of Morbid Anatomy is opened in its present site with Ms Elinor Wrobel as curator.

A bit more about Mrs Elinor Wrobel

Mrs Wrobel has had many titles including the Matron of Morbidity. Her conversation with Richard Fidler in 2010 is still repeated in ‘Best of Conversations with Richard Fidler’ replays. Mrs Wrobel also helped establish Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum, and is curator and trustee of the John Passmore Museum of Art.




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