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Phar Lap's heart's missing pieces

The National Museum of Australia has discovered what it believes are anatomical parts of the revered Australian racehorse Phar Lap in its collection.

Humans have been studying horses for millennia, observing, investigating and dissecting horses’ bodies to learn more about their anatomy, movement and behaviour. Researchers at the Australian Institute of Anatomy in Canberra began amassing a suite of horse specimens, sourced from studs and racehorse owners, from the 1920s. They collected, studied and displayed skeletal and wet specimens to enable people to make comparisons between horse and human movement, disease and malformation.

When the legendary Australia racehorse Phar Lap died in the United States on 5 April 1932, his body was first investigated by the Hooper Medical Foundation at the University of California. Owner David Davis then arranged for the horse's remains to be returned to Australia. Phar Lap's heart was analysed by researchers at the University of Sydney, and then acquired by and placed on display at the Australian Institute of Anatomy in July 1932.

The heart, along with 2500 other wet specimens, came to the National Museum of Australia as part of the Australian Institute of Anatomy collection, which was transferred to the Museum when the Institute closed in 1984.

Pieces of heart in preserving fluid
Australian Institute of Anatomy specimens – portions of heart wall, aorta and pericardium, probably from Phar Lap’s heart, 1932. Photo: Jason McCarthy, National Museum of Australia

How did we find the pieces?

Over the past two years, the Museum has been researching its horse-related collections as part of the Horses in Australia project. Among the 5500 objects identified were 13 anatomical specimens from horses collected by the Australian Institute of Anatomy. These specimens, which were catalogued as 'Horse heart wall' and 'Horse – various organs', were among those selected for display in the major temporary exhibition Spirited: Australia's Horse Story.

Conservator Natalie Ison was preparing the 'Horse – various organs' specimen for display and tipped the jar off its base, revealing a paper label underneath. She took a photograph of the label and sent it to senior curator Martha Sear, as it provided additional information about the contents of the jar that would be useful in exhibition text. When Martha opened the photograph, she was intrigued by the text, which read 'Wall of Ventricle. Aorta. Pericardium. [section of label missing] Lap.'. She and Kirsten Wehner, head of the People and the Environment curatorial team, wondered whether the missing word was 'Phar'. They emailed an equine anatomist with images of the specimens and Phar Lap's heart and asked for his advice on whether the pieces could be those removed from the heart. He confirmed that this was possible.

The team then looked more closely at the other jar of heart wall specimens. The label on this jar was similar to the first and, while damaged, also appeared to contain fragments of the letters 'ap' at the end. The parts in this jar were removed and found on visual examination to be consistent with those in the first jar. The ventricle parts could also be fitted together to form a triangular shape that roughly matched the triangle cut from the heart.

At this stage, the available evidence suggests that the specimens in the two jars are pieces of Phar Lap's heart that were removed during its dissection in 1932. The first jar includes mounted sections of aorta, ventricle and pericardium. The second contains further segments of ventricle and aorta, and a larger portion of the pericardium. Until now, it was believed that the material removed from the heart during analysis had been discarded, or destroyed during the investigation.

Wet specimens jar with label text 'Wall of Ventricle. Aorta. Pericardium. [section of label missing] Lap.'
Australian Institute of Anatomy specimens – portions of heart wall, aorta and pericardium, probably from Phar Lap’s heart, 1932. The underside of the jar shows the label that indicates the specimens were from Phar Lap's heart. Photo: Jason McCarthy, National Museum of Australia


Phar Lap CollectionIf you would like to view Phar Lap’s heart, it is on display in the National Museum of Australia’s Landmarks gallery.

Phar Lap Collection

Find out more about the Museum’s Phar Lap collections