Although today it is less common to encounter staged skeletons in a medical museum context, they are part of a rich, macabre history, popular in the 17th and 18th centuries.
In the University of Melbourne’s Harry Brookes Allen Museum of Anatomy and Physiology, a deformed skeleton, a little over 70 cm tall, sits playing his wooden recorder, as he has done so for some 200 years! This rather confronting exhibit was purchased in Europe for the museum in 1862 by the firm of Raginal and Co. on behalf of the then Professor of Anatomy, Physiology and Pathology at the University of Melbourne, George B. Halford. At that time, it was said to have been have been prepared by Dr Jean-Joseph Sue fils (1760–1830) and to comprise the remains of a 28-year old cripple who played the instrument on the steps of one of the Paris churches.
The flautist’s most striking feature is the single leg, where two femurs or thigh bones bend and join at the knee. Descending from the single kneecap is a fused pair of bones (a tibia and fibula) and a whole right foot. This exhibit appears to be an example of sirenomelia, a rare condition that affects the development of organs of the lower abdomen, pelvis and legs. In particular, sirenomelia fuses the sufferer’s two legs, which is why it’s sometimes called mermaid syndrome. It is a very severe affliction and survival is rare. Those who do live beyond birth must endure multiple operations to separate their legs and repair malformed organs.
A side view of Halford’s flute boy showing its curved thigh bones (normally straight) and single leg
Although Halford was advised the skeleton had reached 28 years of age at the time of death, a recent analysis of X-rays reveals the skeleton to be around 18 years of age, of Caucasian origin, and of indeterminate gender, and that whilst the fused leg could be evidence of sirenomelia the skeleton shows the presence of rickets, a condition caused by vitamin D deficiency, evident from the curved thigh and arm bones. Unlike sirenomelia, rickets was very common in the 18th century. Thus, it seems most likely that the young person was born with two lower limbs, the curved femurs of which allowed the Parisian preparator to exercise a little artistic license, removing a leg and instead creating the deformed, monopodial subject of his exhibit.
Perhaps the recorder was added to the exhibit and a story concocted to go with it simply in order to secure a higher price. Milk (2014) comments that the instrument may even be a bit of an anatomist’s joke: the Latin for flute is tibia, which is also the name of one of the missing leg bones.
Although much has been written about the skeleton, its anatomical peculiarities and its origin, the recorder itself seems to have escaped attention, despite my having provided critical notes on it to the museum as long ago as 2008. To my eye, it looks convincingly real. Judging by its three-part construction, seemingly undercut finger-holes, curved beak, curved and shallow windway, and ornamental turning, it appears to be of 18th-century manufacture. Notably, the the lowermost section (bell) of the foot-joint has been removed or lost, possibly to reinforce the anatomist’s joke alluded to by Milk (loc. cit.) – a clue not recorded by her.
The lack of a raised bead in the middle of the bulbous turning at the bottom of the head-joint is reminiscent of a number of instruments by members of the Hotteterre family of woodwind instrument makers, instrumentalists and composers who have been credited with many of the important changes that took place in the construction of woodwind instruments during the mid- to late-17th century, amongst them the development of the three-jointed recorder from earlier models in one piece. A knob of wood seems to have been fixed into the rear of the block to provide a means of pulling it out of the instrument, although this is more usually done by inserting a thick dowel inside the bore and striking it with a small mallet.
- Halford, George Britton. 1868. “On a Remarkable Symmetrically Deformed Skeleton.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria, Part 1, vol. 9: 108–11. https://archive.org/details/biostor-257855/mode/2up
- MacGregor, Duncan, Ann Brothers & Nicholas S. Lander. 2008. “The Halford Skeleton’s Recorder, Harry Brookes Allen Museum of Anatomy and Pathology, The University of Melbourne.” Discussion notes, April 2008.
- Milk, Anneliese. 2014. Mystery and music in the anatomy museum. University of Melbourne Collections Magazine 14: 3-11. https://museumsandcollections.unimelb.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/1741806/03-Milk_music-anatomyy14.pdf
- Mitchell, Natasha, & Belinda Smith. 2021. “The Mystery of the Flute Boy Bones: A Child Lost in Time.” Australian Broadcasting Commission, ABC National, Science Friction. April 11, 2021. https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/sciencefriction/mystery-halford-flute-boy-bones/13293480
- Smith, Belinda. 2021. “The Story of Halford’s ‘Flute Boy’, and What It Tells Us about the European Trade in Human Remains.” Australian Broadcasting Commission, ABC National, ABC Science, 18 April 2021. https://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2021-04-18/flute-boy-skeleton-human-remains-france-laws-bodysnatchers/100059910
Cite this article as: Lander, Nicholas S. 1996–2021. Recorder Home Page: Snippets: Instrument of Torture. Last accessed 23 September 2021. https://www.recorderhomepage.net/snippets/prof-george-halfords-flute-boy-or-girl/