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An obsession with whales

As a young anatomist Struthers had been much influenced by the teaching of Robert Knox. Knox himself, having studied under Cuvier in Paris, was inevitably an exponent of the comparative approach to anatomy. Cuvier taught his students, including Struthers, to compare human anatomy with that of fish, amphibian, reptiles, birds and other mammals.

In the 1860s Struthers became a convinced Darwinian and his interest turned to variation and adaptation. In particular he became intensely interested in the extreme adaptations of anatomy shown by the those sea-dwelling mammals the whales, or Cetacea. He seems to have been particularly interested in apparently functionless and vestigial structures; for example, the hind limbs which lie entirely within the body and the muscles of the fingers which have become reduced to ligament-like structures.

Working in Aberdeen Struthers was well placed to follow this interest in leviathans. Whalers from Dundee, Aberdeen and Peterhead were active in Greenland waters at that time and could be prevailed upon to bring back skeletal and pickled specimens. In addition, whole carcasses were washed up on the shores of north east Scotland, often in a very fresh condition. As one doctor later recalled, 'the medical students of Aberdeen soon knew of it' whenever a whale was stranded. The class would soon be gathered around the stinking carcass to receive a lecture on the whale's vestigial structures.

Parts, and indeed whole whales, were even taken into the anatomy department to be dissected in Struthers private rooms which began to reek 'like the deck of a Greenland whaler'. It is related that one of his assistants approached Struthers with the suggestion that it might help him in his future medical practice to do some more human anatomy rather than articulating the skeletons of whales. 'ah, well, came the immediate rejoinder, 'if you have no love for the great cetacean creature, that is your misfortune.'

The bones of whales still hanging in the Zoology Museum provide stark testimony to the professor's tenacity in seeking out and preparing these creatures; blue whale, sei whale, pilot whale, minke whale, sperm whale, narwhal, beluga - they are all represented.

Cartoon of Struthers lecturing
Struthers lecturing to the anatomy class. The whale forelimb is still in the Zoology Museum. From a graduation souvenir.

The blue whale was found dead in the north sea off Aberdeen, and was towed into Peterhead Bay on June 27th 1871. Struthers dissected it at low tide as it lay among the rocks. His minutely detailed decriptions are published in:

Struthers, J. (1871) On some points in the anatomy of a great fin whale (Balaenoptera musculus). J. Anat. Physiol. VI. 107-125.
Struthers, J. (1871) On the vervical vertebrae and their articulations in fin-whales. J. Anat. Physiol. VII. 1-55.

The sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis), wrongly identified at the time as a blue whale, was stranded on the beach at Nairn on December 18, 1884. It was sold to a Mr Davidson, oil merchant, Aberdeen for £6 and towed to Aberdeen on February 2. The landing was a difficult operation. An attempt to haul it from the water with 20 horses failed and so it was towed to the shear poles (a lifting system) at the dock, hoisted in mid-air with a tackle around the tail, placed on a series of wagons and dragged by 24 horses and a crowd of men to the recreation grounds, for exhibition. Struthers used the carcass for an on-site lecture to his students. He purchased and macerated the bones for the University. The mounting of the skeleton was still incomplete when he left Aberdeen in 1889. The whale hung in the foyer of the Anatomy Department until 1967 when it was transferred to the Zoology Museum where it now hangs from the roof, still dripping oil on particularly hot days! The transfer is recalled in a contemporary poem in the style of McGonagal's The Great Tay Whale.

The vestigial hind limbs of this whale are described in:

Struthers, J. (1893) On the rudimentary hind-limb of a great fin whale (Balaenoptera musculus) in comparison with those of the humpback whale and the Greenlnad right whale. J. Anat. Physiol. XXVII. 291-335.