Dr. Thomas Joseph Pettigrew, a.k.a. “Mummy Pettigrew”: A Short Biography


On the 28th October 1791, Thomas Joseph Pettigrew was born in a house on Fleet Street in London. He was the son of a naval surgeon and began his own medical studies at 12 years old and by 16 was apprentice to John Taunton and was attending at the Borough Schools. Pettigrew grew up to be an extraordinarily active man, a surgeon, an anatomist and demonstrator, a speaker and founding member of many debating societies and the President of the Royal Humane Society. He was surgeon to several charitable London infirmaries including the new Charing Cross Hospital. He was privately surgeon to the Duke of Kent. He experimented in Galvinism with Aldini himself and he vaccinated Queen Victoria for smallpox when she was a child. But today, if he is famous at all, it is for his interest in the world of antiquity and particularly for his interest in mummies. Indeed, his nickname was ‘Mummy Pettigrew’.

Giovanni Belzoni

There was popular interest in Ancient Egypt in early 19th century London, especially after a cache of treasures which had been captured from the forces of Napoleon arrived and was installed in the collections of the British Museum. Pettigrew himself became interested in Egypt in 1820s, during which time he helped Giovanni Belzoni stage an exhibition. Belzoni was an amazing character himself, an engineer turned circus strongman turned engineer whose decision to go to Egypt to try to sell his engineering developments turned into exploration which resulted in the discoveries of many artifacts, including 4 tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Pettigrew had unwrapped one of the mummies in Belzoni’s exhibition, and would go on to unwrap many more, progressing from displays in more scientific forums and private parties to performing the unwrappings before large crowds of several hundred people.

Plate 11 in “A history of Egyptian mummies, and an account of the worship and embalming of the sacred animals by the Egyptians; with remarks on the funeral ceremonies of different nations, and observations on the mummies of the Canary Islands, of the ancient Peruvians, Burman priests, etc”, by Thomas Joseph Pettigrew. London : Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1834.

The mummy unwrappings (or unrollings) themselves usually had the same format. The body was presented on a table surrounded by the symbols of Egypt including funerary hieroglyphics, and a lecture was given and a warning that the condition of the mummy itself could not be guaranteed. The unrolling itself involved separating the different layers of bandaging, removing amulets from their layers as progress was made, eventually revealing the body itself. An examination would be made of it, remarking on it’s situation as the unrolling progressed and observing things about it, such as body decorations, presence of hair, pliability of skin and guessing at ethnicity. Sometimes this was reasonably easy. Other unwrappings were less gentle. Pettigrew himself says, (in the introduction to his 1834 publication about mummies) “…(it) required considerable force to separate the layers of bandage from the body…..and levers were absolutely necessary to raise the bandages and develop the body…”

By modern standards we would find the way in which the ancient dead were treated by Pettigrew and his fellows to be roughly disrespectful. It seems some of his contemporaries did too.

“Some nasty beasts met together Saturday last to indulge in the disgusting amusement of unwrapping a mummy…Pettigrew positively glories in the unclean process and pulls about the encrusted carcass with a fervour of purpose which may be scientific, but is nonetheless nasty in the extreme…”, wrote an anonymous author, possibly Henry Mayhew, in ‘Figaro in London’ in 1837.

However, Pettigrew was someone who, like most of his surgical contemporaries, had become well acquainted with work on the dead from his early teens, as an anatomy student of early 19th century London. Pettigrew himself relates that on one occasion in his youth, he was brought before the authorities to answer their concerns about the “frequency of (his) anatomical research” at the workhouse at which he was assisting his father in surgery. He says it had
“…unfortunately inspired so much terror in one poor old woman that, fearing she was about to die, she discharged herself from the house, expressing her aversion to having her remains subjected to ‘the mangling of young Pettigrew…'”

L0000052 On superstitions... Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org On superstitions connected with the history and practice of medicine and surgery. 1844 On superstitions connected with the history and practice of medicine and surgery / Thomas Joseph Pettigrew Published: 1844. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
On superstitions connected with the history and practice of medicine and surgery. 1844. Thomas Joseph Pettigrew.

The authorities did nothing much about this. By his later teens, Pettigrew was the demonstrator of anatomy at the private school of John Taunton, an anatomist who certainly purchased bodies from the resurrection men – Taunton’s name is recorded as a customer in the diary of resurrectionist Joseph Naples. For surgeon anatomists like Pettigrew, who had nurtured a love of anatomy from a young age, the mummies (like the bodies of the contemporary dead), were apparently subjects of scientific inquiry and curiosity, and little more.

Pettigrew had a controversial character. Some of his contemporaries were often less than complimentary about him, accusing him of being a jealous spiteful man who regularly stirred conflict for the joy of the intrigue. However, he did also have a very broad social network with which he was energetically engaged through his life, and though his mummy unrollings consciously trod the line between performance and science, they were not without scientific merit. Pettigrew’s book is still very well regarded today, and is considered to be one of, if not the first scientific examination of Egyptian mummies and the mummification process, which was Pettigrew’s fascination. So well acquainted with the process was Pettigrew, that later in his life, he was called upon to actually mummify the body of the Duke of Hamilton (an enthusiast of antiquary and admirer of Pettigrew’s work). Pettigrew was also convinced of the truth of the work of Champollion who first uncovered how to correctly decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics using the Rosetta Stone. Pettigrew himself could understand hieroglyphics (having studied Champollion’s work) which he demonstrated through the unrollings against critics of Champollion’s work.

Because of their public nature, the curiosity of his audiences, the theatre and spectacle that surrounded the unrollings, and the way in which those spectacles are so at odds with contemporary attitudes about treatment of the ancient and modern dead, Pettigrew’s performances could easily now be seen as belonging to the same category as a sideshow, lacking in empathy for their human subjects. However, he was also clearly a fascinating character, whose place in the history founding of Egyptology is assured by the book he wrote and by the accounts of his extraordinary performances.

Further Reading

Belzoni, Giovani. 1820. Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries Within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs, and Excavations, in Egypt and Nubia. London: John Murray, Albermarle-Street.

Mayes, Stanley. 1959.  The Great Belzoni: The Circus Strongman Who Discovered Egypt’s Ancient Treasure. London: I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd.

Moshenska, Gabriel. 2014. “Unrolling Egyptian mummies in nineteenth-century Britain“. The British Journal for the History of Science 47, n. 3: 451-477.

Pettigrew, Thomas Joseph. 1834. A History of Egyptian Mummies. London.

Pettigrew, Thomas Joseph. 1840. Biographical Memoirs of the most celebrated Physicians, Surgeons. London.

Pettigrew, Thomas Joseph. 1844. On Superstitions Connected with the History and Practice of Medicine and Surgery. London.

To cite this post : Kirsty Chilton, “Dr. Thomas Joseph Pettigrew, a.k.a.Mummy Pettygrew: A Short Biography”, Museum Highlights (blog on oldoperatingtheatre.com), October 18, 2016. [On line] http://http://oldoperatingtheatre.com/dr-thomas-joseph-pettigrew-a-k-a-mummy-pettigrew-a-short-biography/

Kirsty Chilton is assistant curator at the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret.