The Death Collector: an Interview with Dr Ryan Jefferies

Sunday August 26, 2018 Written by Max Olijnyk with photography by Peter Tarasiuk


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Death Collector

“There is an innate beauty in death that sometimes people don’t appreciate,” says
 Dr Ryan Jefferies. The young and otherwise quite normal-seeming doctor is the curator of the Harry Brookes Allen Museum of Anatomy and Pathology at the University of Melbourne, where he spends his days researching and maintaining Australia’s largest collection of real human tissue specimens, anatomical models and other creepy, fascinating stuff.*

Among the 12,000 items in the collection
are Ned Kelly’s death mask (a plaster cast taken following his execution), a variety of body parts afflicted by various diseases, the reconstructed head of a mummified Egyptian woman, and Jefferies’ current fave: a skeleton of a real-life ‘mermaid’ holding a wooden flute. It’s been claimed as an example of sirenomelia (‘mermaid syndrome’), a rare congenital deformity in which the legs are fused together. “The skeleton was prepared in the 1700s and it really is incredible,” he says.

Jefferies’ interest in death began, like it
does for many of us, as a child. Growing
up on a farm, “the diversity of life was
at our doorstep”, he says, and the young doctor-to-be kept a box of bird skulls
under his bed. At 14, he did a stint studying taxidermy at the Western Australian Museum, before entering the world of academia – culminating in a PhD in infectious disease – then changing gears and studying multimedia and communication.

His varied background has prepared him well for his current role: “It’s something you can trace back to Renaissance times, when artists had a far greater understanding of the human body than medical physicians.” Jefferies aims to strengthen these links between art and science through programs such as the museum’s life (and death) drawing classes, as well as an upcoming exhibition about blood at the yet-to-open Science Gallery Melbourne.

The Harry Brookes Allen Museum is not open to the public – it’s designed for education, not entertainment, and many of its specimens
are governed by Victoria’s Human Tissue Act 1982. “People donate their bodies for specific purposes, and those purposes are teaching and research only,” Jefferies says. “It’s a legal requirement, but it’s also very much out of respect.” However, the museum does open to the public for the university’s open day, and hosts occasional private tours, providing us mere mortals the rare opportunity to come face to face with our literal inner selves.

“It is incredible, holding someone’s lung or heart in your hands for the very first time,” Jeffries says. “All of these thoughts are going through your head: you’re thinking about the individual who so generously donated their body – their life, who they were – but you’re also going, ‘Wow, this is what it looks like inside me.’ You’re actively learning about the anatomy as well.”

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* This story was first published in volume 22 of Smith Journal, in 2017. Dr Jefferies has since moved on from the Museum of Anatomy and Pathology, and is now Head of Programs at Science Gallery Melbourne. His replacement at the Museum of Anatomy and Pathology is Rohan Long.