The Evelyn Tables – Musings on Leoni d’Este’s Human Herbarium

A photograph showing one of the Evelyn tables, featuring the spinal cord and the entire nervous system in the human body.Finding Gems in London

The Evelyn tables are the oldest known anatomical preparations in Europe –  a manner of human herbarium – showcased at a scarcely visited location in the very heart of London. 

I get lost wherever I go.  I don’t mind though.  I follow my nose…  For me, it is the only way to get to know and appreciate the great capital cities of Europe.  But that morning when I set off to explore the beautiful sights of London, I was not prepared for what I discovered by pure chance…


The Evelyn Tables

The Royal College of Surgeons houses a superb collection.  Granted, it is neither for the squeamish nor for the faint-hearted.  It hosts every possible item, from grossly enlarged human skulls to disease-deformed skeletons and body parts or varied animal species, swimming inside formaldehyde-filled jars.  The specimens are unlike any others.

Acquired by John Evelyn in Padua in the year 1646, as a souvenir from his Grand Tour, they were donated by Evelyn to the nascent Royal Society in 1667, as a teaching aid to the future generations of medical specialists.  They eventually found their way to the Royal College of Surgeons in 1809, where they are currently displayed at the Hunterian Museum of London, where they remain a valuable curiosity for many students of natural sciences.

A photograph showing the display of the four Evelyn Tables at the Hunterian Museum of London.
The Evelyn Tables, as displayed in London’s Hunterian Museum, inside the Royal College of Surgeons. Source: Instagram

Each one of the Evelyn tables is approximately 1.9 m in height, and 77 cm wide.  Each one provides an insight into human physiology.  Indeed, they display four different parts of the human body – including arteries, nerves, veins – all meticulously dissected from a human specimen, then affixed to a pine wooden board, and preserved from the passing centuries under several coats of varnish.

The first three tables were prepared by Giovanni Leoni d’Este, dissector to Johann Vesling, a professor of anatomy in Padua, for Leoni’s own use.  The fourth Evelyn table showing the vagal nerves, the lungs, and the liver was also prepared by Leoni, at John Evelyn’s request.


The Networks Inside of Us

  • The first Evelyn table displays the spinal cord and nerves.

The spinal cord is a long, thin, tubular bundle of nervous tissue and support cells.  Together, the brain and spinal cord together make up the central nervous system (CNS).  It extends from the medulla oblongata in the brainstem to the lumbar region of the vertebral column.

  • The second one shows the circulatory system – the aorta and arteries.

The aorta is the main artery in the human body.  The aorta distributes oxygenated blood to all parts of the body.  It starts at the left ventricle of the heart and extending down to the abdomen, where it branches into two smaller arteries.

  • The third shows the vagi and sympathetic nerves, and the veins of the lungs and liver.

A drawing artwork showing the Evelyn Table on the nervous system.The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve or CN X, and interfaces with parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs and digestive tract.  Paired, it is the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system in the human body.

The sympathetic nervous system is one of the two main divisions of the autonomic nervous system.  The sympathetic nervous system’s primary process is to stimulate the body’s fight-or-flight response, constantly active at a basic level to maintain homeostasis.  It is complementary to the parasympathetic nervous system which stimulates the body to “rest-and-digest” or “feed-and-breed”.

  • The fourth Evelyn table shows the distribution of the veins.


An account on the Evelyn tables of arteries and veins was presented by anatomist William Cowper on 21 January 1701 and later printed in Philosophical Transactions, together with his drawings engraved by Michael van der Gucht.

“An Account of Divers Schemes of Arteries and Veins, Dissected from Adult Human Bodies, and Given to the Repository of the Royal Society by John Evelyn, Esq; E. R. S. To Which are Subjoyn’d a Description of the Extremities of Those Vessels, and the Manner the Blood is Seen, by the Microscope, to Pass from the Arteries to the Veins in Quadrupeds When Living: With Some Chirurgical Observations, and Figures after the Life, by William Cowper, F. R. S.”


Although perhaps not for the squeamish, the Evelyn tables are simply an absolute must-see for anyone with an interest in human network physiology and human anatomy.