Afterlife: the lost skull at The Royal College of Surgeons in London

The quote from Renshaw in 1904 below starts another chapter in the way that bluebuck skulls have appeared and disappeared since the species' extinction.

It has hitherto been supposed that the blaauwbok is represented today only by stuffed specimens and by the frontlet [in the British Museum] referred to: no skull being known to exist in any museum, nor does there seem to be any description of one in the whole of scientific literature, the acquisition of such a desideratum being apparently considered about as likely as that of the living animal itself! Nevertheless, a blaauwbok skull - unfortunately imperfect - has for many years been preserved in the Royal College of Surgeons' Museum in Lincoln Inn Fields. A careful comparison of this skull, with that of a roan antelope, has convinced me that it is genuine. (Renshaw, 1904)

Renshaw continued to describe the skull in some detail, concluding that it was a female in the prime of life. At this point, the lower jaw was missing, but it did have horns.

The skull was part of the London Hunterian collection which was accommodated or historical reasons in the Royal College of Surgeons. This collection arose from the work of John Hunter, younger brother to William whose own collection is the nucleus of the Glasgow Museum (also called the Hunterian). Situated in Central London, the Royal College of Surgeons narrowly avoided bombs in the First World War. The sheer quantity of specimens made evacuation of the museum impossible when the second world war broke out. A contemporary display panel in the re-built Hunterian Museum narrates wartime events.

On the night of 10 May 1941 disaster struck. Former Conservator Arthur Keith watched the raids over London from his home in Kent. In his diary, he described how 'the sky over London glowed red'. The next day he learnt the museum 'had been reduced to a charred mass ... All that my predecessors and I had laboured to bring about had been wiped out in a night.' Over two thirds of the collection was lost, and much of the College destroyed. Volunteers - including the elderly Keith - salvaged the thousands of specimens from the rubble and sent them to locations outside London for safekeeping. (Museum information material)

The skull in question was not sadly one of the items salvaged and in the post-war reconstruction of the College and Museums, it was of course irreplaceable - though other gaps were filled. As an assistant Conservator, Alexander Cane, wrote to the Trustees:

Once an original has perished, it has gone - whether this be a Hunterian specimen, a Rembrandt, a Winged Victory, or anything else. There can be no genuine reproduction or replacement, and attempts thereof must always smack of forgery. (Alexander Cane, 1959)

A recent search of the museum records yielded only the information that the specimen was a female and had been in the collection in 1866.

Erna Mohr in her monograph of 1967 reviews the evidence provided by Renshaw in 1904 using a photograph he showed of the skull. With Mohr's work, the bluebuck skull at the Royal College of Surgeons was demolished a second time. She concluded that Renshaw was mistaken and the skull had definitely belonged to a roan antelope. For her the deciding factor was the length of the horns, which proportionally had too few annulations to be classed as Hippotragus leucophaeus.

For further information about the Hunterian Museum in London: www.rcseng.ac.uk/museums