Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Butchell, Martin van

BUTCHELL, MARTIN van (1735–1812?), empiric, son of Martin van Butchell, tapestry maker to George II, was born in Eagle Street, near Red Lion Square, London, in February 1735. Having shown an aptitude for the study of medicine and anatomy, he became a pupil of John Hunter, and after successfully practising as a dentist for many years, he became eminent as a maker of trusses, and acquired celebrity by his skill in treating cases of fistula. He was still more noted for the eccentricity of his manners. His long beard and extraordinary costume astonished all beholders, and it was his custom to ride about in Hyde Park and the streets on a white pony, which he sometimes painter all purple, sometimes with purple or black spots. To defend himself against rude molestation, he carried a large white bone, which was said to have been used as a weapon of war in the island of Otaheite. For many years he resided in Mount Street, Berkeley Square, and attracted numerous patients by his quaintly worded advertisements in the newspapers.

On the death of his first wife in 1775 he applied to Dr. William Hunter and Mr. Cruickshank to exert their skill in preventing, if possible, the changes of form after the cessation of life. The mode pursued in this embalmment principally that of injecting the vascular system with oil of turpentine and camphorated spirit of wine, coloured, so that the minute vessels of the cheeks and lips are filled, and exhibited their original hue, the body in general having its cavities filled with powdered nitre and camphor, so that it remained free from corruption; glass eyes were also inserted. The corpse was then deposited in a bed of thin plaster of Paris in a box with a glass lid that could be withdrawn at pleasure. For many years Van Butchell kept the mummy of his wife in his parlour, and frequently exhibited the corpse to his friends and visitors. On his second marriage it was found expedient to remove the body to the museum of the College of Surgeons in Lincoln's Inn Fields, where it is still preserved. At the present time it is a repulsive-looking object.

Van Butchell appears to have been alive in 1812. There is an engraved portrait of him on his spotted pony in Kirby's ‘Wonderful and Scientific Museum,’ 1803.

[Gent. Mag. lxiii. 5, 6, 165, lxxvi. 681, lxxxii. (i.) 326; Kirby's Wonderful Museum, i. 191; Eccentric Magazine (1812), i. 109; Malcolm's Curiosities of Biography, 333; Cat. of Printed Books in Brit. Mus.; Lysons's Suppl. to 1st. edit. of Environs of London, 113; Timbs's Doctors and Patients, i. 129; Evans's Cat. of Engraved Portraits, 10664; Burning the Dead, by a member of the Royal Coll. of Surgeons (1857), 13.]

T. C.