Author Archives: Katie Maggs, Curator of Medicine

Surgery behind the scenes at Buckingham Palace

Katie Maggs, Curator of Medicine blogs on a rather special surgery performed at the Palace.   

One of the amazing things about working at the Science Museum is the number of extraordinary people you get to meet who give a unique insight into our collections. A few days ago I made a trip to the South Coast to interview Sarah Minter – a retired nurse and spritely 96 year old. Not only has she lived through some incredible changes within medicine during her career, she played a vital role in a high-profile operation performed on this table displayed in our Health Matters Gallery – more than 60 years ago.

Adjustable operating table by the Genito Urinary Manufacturing Co., London, 1950s. At the time this operating table was the latest model for chest surgery – multiple attachments helped to better position the patient during surgery. Image credit: Science Museum.

In September 1951, Sarah – then Senior Theatre Sister at Westminster Hospital – was about to go on holiday when Clement Price-Thomas (later Sir) a renowned Chest Surgeon came into her office. After carefully closing the door, he informed her that he had to perform a major chest operation on King George VI – and at the Palace’s insistence the operation would take place at Buckingham Palace. Sarah was tasked with coordinating the equipment and nursing team that would be needed for the operation. Cancelling her holiday, Sarah set to work. Absolute secrecy was essential.

Sarah Minter and her fellow nursing team being thanked by Westminster’s Matron Lavina Young in 1951 for their role in the King’s operation. Sarah started training as a Probationer Nurse at Westminster Hospital in 1939, on a salary of £20.00 paid quarterly. Her responsibilities gradually expanded until she became Divisional Nursing Officer in the 1960s. She retired in 1977.

From sterilising to lighting apparatus - Sarah selected what equipment she could from Westminster’s surgical theatres including the operating table, in order to create a replica theatre inside the Palace. Part of the challenge was to ensure enough of the right surgical equipment remained at the hospital so that operations could continue uninterrupted by what was happening at the Palace.  

Crowds awaiting news of King George VI’s operation outside Buckingham Palace, 1951. The King’s operation began around 10am on the 23rd September 1951. Sarah recalled the thrill of looking out at the crowds from a window in the Palace, as a press notice about the operation was posted to the gates. Image Credit: BBC.

King George VI recovered from the surgery but died later in February 1952. The operating table went back to the hospital into normal usage. Sarah received a signed photograph of the King and Queen thanking her for her part in the procedure. Her name is listed with the members of the surgical team on a stained glass window commemorating King George VI in the chapel of Westminster Hospital.

Speaking with Sarah, I gained a real sense of the professionalism shown by nurses like her and an insight into the conditions in which she was working and the operation which took place. Whilst proud of her part in such notable surgery, it was medical advances Sarah recalled – such as the first dialysis machine used at Westminster Hospital or the shift from being a voluntary to an NHS Hospital – that made more of an impact on her and the patients she cared for.

First Time Out…second time around

Katie Maggs, Curator of Medicine at the Science Museum, writes about the collaborative museums project, First Time Out

A while ago the Science Museum took part in a project called First Time Out – where museums put on display a ‘treasure’ from their stored collections that had never before been seen in public. Well we’re giving it a go again – but this time the project is larger than ever. Ten museums, from all over England, have paired up to swap objects from their collections, with the Science Museum partnering with the Discovery Museum in Newcastle (a great day out – go visit!).

We’ve chosen a rather splendid set of ten ivory mathematical puzzles that was made in China and exported to Britain in the mid-late 1800s.

Amongst the puzzles the set contains is a tangram. A sensation when introduced to Europe in 1817 - tangrams are made up of several pieces known as ‘tans’ that can be assembled to make different shapes – according to problems posed by a picture book.
Amongst the puzzles the set contains is a tangram. A sensation when introduced to Europe in 1817 – tangrams are made up of several pieces known as ‘tans’ that can be assembled to make different shapes.

 In July, all the museums are swapping objects with their partners. We’re very excited about the early light-bulb and light switch that will be heading down from the Discovery Museum.

Newcastle was a hotbed of activity during the development of electric lighting, with pioneers such as Joseph Swan based there. (Image courtesy of Discovery Museum, Newcastle-upon-Tyne).

It’s strange to think on the 4th July all ten objects will be hitting the road, crossing paths up and down the country, until they reach their temporary new home. And there’s some seriously amazing objects that have been uncovered. The bone model guillotine from Peterborough Museum, and the Natural History Museum’s tattooed dolphin skull are pretty remarkable.

Previously lurking in Peterborough Museum’s store is this model guillotine made from animal bone by prisoners of the Napoleanic Wars. (Credit: Photo John Moore, Vivacity Culture and Leisure)

I think it’s useful for museums to draw attention to material in store – both to explore the strangeness and explain the significance of holding material in storage for perpetuity, as well as to highlight the particular riches to be found behind the scenes.  Objects of course convey multiple meanings. Museums as well aren’t homogenous, so perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the project are the different perspectives each partner brings to the same object.

From a personal point of view, it’s been great working on First Time Out. Part of the fun was in selecting potential object candidates to be displayed, it was a great opportunity to look beyond the usual artefacts I work with (medical stuff) and explore collections I don’t usually get my hands on such as maths or astronomy colletions pictured here within Blythe House. (Credit: Laura Porter)

First Time Out opens with home objects on display from 6th June. You can see the Discovery Museum’s objects on display in the Museum from 5th July – until the beginning of August.

Collecting synthetic biology – an iGEM of an idea

Collecting stuff is generally the bit I like most about my job. That’s probably why I’ve got a bit over excited about the new acquisitions we’ve made related to synthetic biology – from no other than Tom Knight widely described as the “father” of the discipline.

Synthetic biology is research that combines biology and engineering. Sounds like genetic engineering by another name? Well yes, but it goes much further. It looks to create new biological functions not found in nature, designing them according to engineering principles.  Some see the field as the ultimate achievement of knowledge, citing the engineer-mantra of American physicist Richard Feynman, “What I cannot create, I do not understand”.

Biofilm made by the UT Austin / UCSF team for the 2004 Synthetic Biology competition. From drugs to biofuels the potential applications are huge. (Image: WikiCommons)

Now like a lot of biotech, synthetic biology isn’t particularly easy to collect or represent through objects – as it’s the biology that’s interesting and most of the ‘stuff’ used in research is entirely indistinguishable from other biological equipment e.g. micropipettes and microwells.  

What we’ve acquired are a number of iGEM kits – hardware consisting of standardised biological components known as BioBricks™ . Students competing in iGEM are sent these kits to engineer new applications. Check out some of the former winner’s projects: Arsenic Biodetector, Bactoblood, E. Chromi.

Biological lego – parts that have particular functions and can be readily assembled. The kits document a fascinating ten year period in the discipline of synthetic biology – starting from this basic aliquot kit sent out when iGEM first launched c.2002. (Image: Science Museum)

The origin of these objects and the idea for BioBricks™ is rather curious. They didn’t emerge from biology – but from computer science. Tom Knight was a senior researcher at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Tom became interested in the potential for using biochemistry to overcome the impending limitations of computer transistors.

Knight Lab: Tom set up a biology lab in his computer science department and began to explore whether simple biological systems could be built from standard, interchangeable parts and operated in living cells. That led to setting up iGEM.

From aliquots to paper based DNA to microwells – the kits show the technological change and sheer complexity of distributing biological components to teams competing around the globe.

In 2008 - the kits trialled paper embedded DNA via these folders - but it didn't quite work out. The kits do, however, represent an important ethic - that of open-sourcing in science. Students collaborate and contribute to adding new biological parts. (Image: Science Museum)

Suggestions for other synthetic biology stuff we could collect gratefully received!

Remembering the Devonport Incident – 50 years on

One bottle is a killer. The other is entirely safe. They’re identical in every other way – indeed from the same manufacturing batch. This new acquisition was donated by Professor Barry Cookson, former Director of the Laboratory of Healthcare Associated Infection, HPA. But what happened to make one so deadly and the other not?

These are the first bottles of dextrose solution to be published ( Science Museum, London )

These bottles of dextrose are sad reminders of the life and death hunt for 500 similar bottles in March 1972. Five patients died at the Devonport Hospital in Plymouth having received fluid from the same batch as these. The fluid was found to be heavily contaminated with bacteria.  A landmark inquiry was launched to discover what went wrong and to ensure it wouldn’t happen again.

Sterilisation is a key story in the advancement of modern medicine. It’s critical to everyday hospital practice. Largely a practical matter of engineering and systematic checks, sterilisation isn’t glamorous but it’s critical for patient safety – as the Devonport Incident illustrated.

An autoclave is a machine that sterilizes equipment by subjecting them to high pressure steam ( Science Museum, London )

In 1971, these two bottles were autoclaved at the same time. A fault on the machine resulted in only the bottles on the top two shelves being sterilised properly. Those on the lower shelf were not. There were quality control checks – but the assessed bottles were only taken from the top shelf so the failure wasn’t detected and the whole batch was issued for use.

Eleven months later the bottles from the lower shelf reached Devonport hospital. During that time, surviving bacteria multiplied in the solution and produced a toxic fluid with deadly consequences.  There are only slight differences between the bottles – the aluminium cap on the contaminated bottle was still shiny as it hadn’t been sufficiently heated to go dull like the bottle that was sterilised

Image credit: Barry Cookson

 What’s sad is that it often takes tragic incidents like this to identify what’s going wrong with a system, and then implement new standards and checks. The inquiry identified numerous ways safety could be improved from manufacturer to hospital – thankfully those measures are still implemented today and the lessons from this incident are still taught to hundreds of healthcare workers every year.

The Secret of Life

The third and final installment of Miranda Bud’s blogs… 

The Watson and Crick discovery of the DNA double helix is an iconic image of our scientific age. It is considered the milestone of contemporary genetics and is such an integrated part of our society that saying “it’s in my DNA” is a commonly used phrase by many people.

Working with Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin they unlocked the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th century. It led to countless advances, solved a mystery which had troubled scientists for decades and it was what produced Francis Crick’s famous statement in the Eagle pub on the 28th February 1953 that he and Watson had “found the secret of life”.

(The four Collaborators on the DNA model. Credit: ba-education.com)

Since then a lot more research has been done to unravel the secrets of DNA and to decode the human genome. What surprised me though was that DNA structure is not something merely left to the scientific world…

In 1993 Bijan, an American fashion designer, brought out ‘DNA’ perfume, with the caption “DNA…it’s the reason you have your father’s eyes, your mother’s smile”. This highlights the link between art and science that exists and which is becoming more visible, as more and more artists and designers take their inspiration from molecular biology.

(Bottle of 'DNA' eau de parfum, United States, 1993. Credit: Science Museum)

From my time at the Science Museum I have seen more than anything how science can be related to all aspects of life. From fashion to fission, science helps build a picture of the world around us and tries to give us reasons for why we live the way we do.

I loved seeing a different side to the museum, one most members of the public don’t get to experience. Blythe and Wroughton with their huge stores allow you to see not just science, but history as well. There are so many objects each with a unique story, and I only regret that I have only managed to discover but a few of those stories in my short time here.

Spectacular spectacles

The second installment of Miranda Bud’s blogs… 

The majority of people will need to wear some form of glasses at some point of their lives, and I am no exception. I was fascinated therefore to discover the treasure trove of old spectacles frames and lenses hidden away in the basement of Blythe.

The most striking thing about the majority of these spectacles was their size. The glasses have tiny lenses which I can imagine were quite difficult to see through. The one pair I have chosen to focus on is a pair with double folding blue lenses which gave extra protection to the eyes.

(Turn pin spectacles with tinted, double folding lenses, France, 1790-1850. Credit: Science Museum)

The lenses on these steel wire spectacles protect the front and sides of the eye. They are tinted blue to protect from the sun. The spectacle arms are pivoted at the temple and can rotate 360 degrees. They are known as turnpin spectacles. These types of glasses where very popular  during the late 1700s and early 1800s, and even the famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven owned a pair of round frame turnpin glasses.

(Round Turnpin Glasses similar to those worn by composer Ludwig van Beethoven. Credit: The College of Optometrists)

Obviously everyone had to have their own prescription, but back in the 19th century testing eyesight was a little different to how it is today.  In 1928 Henry Wellcome bought a set of 12 trial lenses and a pair of trial frames at auction, the lenses look as though as they would have been used to test a patient’s eyesight. However, the unusual shape of the lenses indicate they were used to test patients with severe sight problems.

(Set of 12 trial lenses and a pair of trial frames, Europe, 1880-1920. Credit: Science Museum)

Over the years glasses have evolved somewhat, moving from pince-nez and monocles to the more modern thick rimmed ‘hipster’ glasses. It is fascinating to see the progression and to see how some styles seem to keep coming back, while others thankfully have gone for good.

(Hipster Glasses. Credit: Bossip.com)

 

Breathing in Blythe

In the next few blogs Miranda Bud, a work experience student, gives us an account of the objects that have sparked her imagination over the last few days… 

Before coming to the Science Museum I’d never heard of an iron lung, let alone seen one. My first day at Blythe I was intrigued by the huge coffin like contraption used predominantly during the polio outbreaks of the 1940s and 1950s. The first form of life-support, it was invented in America in 1928 to help victims of gas inhalation.

(Drinker-type iron lung respirator, London, England, 1930-1939. Named after its inventor, Philip Drinker (1894-1972). Credit: Science Museum)

Iron lungs became famous for keeping polio patients alive. In October 1928, an eight-year-old girl at the Children’s Hospital in Boston who was suffering from severe respiratory failure due to the disease, dramatically recovered within less than a minute of being placed in the chamber.

(Explanatory diagram showing a later iron lung model. Credit: Oobject)

Iron lungs help patients to breathe by sucking air out of the chamber causing the patients lungs to expand, and then pumping air back in, causing the patient to exhale. For many the iron lung was a temporary necessity, however others spent the rest of their lives in them. For these patients they developed a peculiar affinity with their iron lung, as it was both a prison and a savior. When more modern life-support machines were invented, iron lungs were no longer needed. However many patients would still return to hospital in order to sleep in their iron lungs, some even decided to modernise theirs, adding the Internet and television which they could control with their feet.

Re-’cycling’

On Saturday I had tickets to see the Men’s Road Race competition. It was terrifically exciting as they zoomed nine times round Box Hill. Shame about the result but ho hum. In recent times Britain has become bike mad. Bicycle bits crop up a surprising amount of times – in rather unusual ways - in the medical collections.  So even if it all goes wrong for Bradley Wiggins in the time trial (and fingers crossed not!)- here’s some ideas to put his bike to good use to:

(The radium 'bomb' was built in the hospital's workshops - put together from simple available equipment such as bike parts. Credit: Science Museum)

This stange looking contraption is known as a radium ‘bomb’. Radium was a radioactive source used to give radiotherapy for cancer treatment in the 1930s at Westminster Hospital.  The radium was placed in the egg-shaped lead-lined head (known as the ‘bomb’) and a bicycle break cable enabled doctors to expose patients to the radium by opening and closing the shutter at a distance – helping them to avoid exposure to the radiation. 

This ‘exo-skeleton’  leg frame was designed to relieve pressure on the joints of people with arthritis. It features an adapted bicycle seat to help the user to rest their weight when strapped into the frame.  

(Made by Professor W. Thring in the 1960s, Thring was one of the first people to work on domestic robots. Credit: Science Museum)

Perhaps our star object is the Stoke Mandeville Hospital bed cycle – which employed bike chain and cassette to help injured WW2 veterans rebuild strength in arms and lengths by pushing pedals. Stoke Mandeville Hospital was the site for the games that went on to become the Paralympics

Dr Ludwig Guttmann set up the specialist Spinal Injuries Unit in 1944 where the bed cycle was used. On the first day of the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, sixteen ex-servicemen took to the Hospital lawn in Aylesbury to compete in the first ever Stoke Mandeville Games. Credit: Science Museum).

Cycling is clearly not just a recent passion. A number of tattoo’s in our collection, dating from around the 1890s show a great love for the sport.

(Despite not being able to get hold of an image of my favourite tattoo - a pig riding a bike - here's a tattoo of a man riding a penny farthing. The inscription was a regular motto for German cyclists "All Heil!" meaning 'All's well!'. Credit: Science Museum)

It would be interesting to know whether many of the GB Team have taken their passion for cycling as far inking the skin. Anyway – good luck to Wiggins and all the cyclists – let’s hope they strike gold!

PS. Yay – Gold! Congratulations to Bradley Wiggins for winning the time trial. Ok so he wasn’t ever in danger of needing to break up his bike for hospital parts.

 

 

 

Delving into the mysteries of our slide collections…

We have some amazing volunteers doing fantastic work helping us uncover more about our collections. Regina and Alix started volunteering with the Science Museum in October 2011, and are currently working on a project to catalogue the museum’s extensive microscope slide collections. Here’s the first in a series of blogs they’ve written to let you know more about what they’ve discovered in the basement of our store at Blythe House

Some of the thirty-seven slide cabinets collected by Frank Horrocks (Source: Science Museum, London)

Imagine a room full to the brim with curious wooden cabinets, that haven’t been touched for over 40 years. That’s currently where we’re working, cataloguing these cabinets to make make them more accessible to researchers and exhibition organisers.

Each cabinet contains hundreds of microscope slides, covering a range of topics, from histology and biology to geology and even photography (tiny images of people’s portraits)! As well as researching and documenting these slide collections, we also hope to find out more about who put together these collections – who mounted the specimens, how they did it and why.

We, somewhat arbitrarily, started with the Frank Horrocks collection of slides, which was acquired by the museum in 1979. After doing some digging, we discovered that Frank Threapleton Horrocks (1916-1978) was a dentist and avid collector of microscopical preparations.

Frank Threapleton Horrocks (1916-1978) (source: Journal of the Quekett Microscopical Club)

He was particularly interested in the history of microscopy and was heavily involved in the Quekett Microscopical Club. Not only was Frank Horrocks a collector, he also undertook microscopy courses at Belstead House, Suffolk, where he mounted his own specimens.

Some nice examples of Horrocks' own preparations, a section of a Caterpillar, something that looks like a Flea but is too big to be one (answers on a postcard), and the respiratory system of a Silkworm (Source: Science Museum, London)

So far we have looked through 4099 slides and are barely half way through!

We owe special thanks to Steve Bell of the Quekett Microscopical Club and Ernie Ives and Faith Hicks of Belstead House who have helped us in our quest to find out more about Frank Horrocks.

We’ll aim to keep you updated with our progress and also share interesting or important finds with you.

How to make your pets last longer…

Wrapped up beneath these bandages is a mummified animal. How did it die? What material is it wrapped in? Are there amulets we can’t see inside? Is it an animal at all – could they be human remains?

Mummified cat, ancient Egypt, 2000-100 BCE, (source: Science Museum).

To answer question like these and more, the Science Museum is collaborating in a new nationwide project analysing the remains of ancient Egyptian animals. Led by researchers at the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology, the Ancient Egyptian Animal Biobank project is aiming to scan, sample and study all such remains in the UK.  

Dr. Lidija McKnight and Stephanie Atherton - researchers from the UK wide Ancient Egyptian Animal Biobank project - take a look at our mummified animal collections on 30/03/11 (Source: Katie Maggs).

Ancient Egyptians appear to be the only civilisation to have deliberately mummified and preserved animals. Yet, relatively little is known about their motivations to do so (for some theories visit this British Museum site).

The study should produce valuable information about the role of animals in ancient Egypt – a critical part of the human story there.  Egypt was (and is) an agricultural society. Studying these animals will shed light on the food supplies and environment ancient Egyptians lived in, as well as the diseases that may have affected both animals and humans.

It’s a great opportunity for the Science Museum to get to know more about these objects. Part of the collections amassed by Henry Wellcome in the early 20th century, we know relatively little about where and when in Egypt they come from. Participating in this project will give us a better insight into how complete the remains are, whether there are other items inside we cant see, cause of death -  and a better idea of the time period and regions they’re from. Moreover – knowing more about their materials will help us care for them better in the future.

Along with birds like this one and cats - crocodiles, baboons, cows and bulls have all been found preserved through mummification. You can see some of the beak and wings poking though the cloth that this bird is wrapped up in. (Source: Science Museum)

Next steps will be bringing the animals up to a Manchester hospital for x-ray and CT scanning later in the year. With scanners focussed on patients for most of the week - imaging has to be carried out on the weekend by radiographers willing to donate their free time to do this.

Samples of the various remains will also be collected for testing. We don’t damage the animals on purpose to do this – often small fragments flake off whilst they sit in the showcase. We can gather these up and send them to the biobank for analysis. 

You can visit our collection of mummified animals in the Art and Science of Medicine gallery (5th floor). We’ll keep you up to date with progress and report back on what the study finds out!