Author Archives: Selina Hurley, Assistant Curator of Medicine

‘Doctor, are you willing, to try this Penicillin?’

Selina Hurley, Assistant Curator of Medicine, takes a look at the story behind a new addition to our collections.

One of the most enjoyable parts of a curator’s job is acquiring objects which become part of the national collections. Not only do we go out and actively seek objects but we also get offered some real gems. Recently arrived at the Science Museum is this rather wonderful object.

Wooden chest used by Major Scott Thomson, RAMC, to transport penicillin supplies to North Africa during the Second World War, 1939-1945.

Wooden chest used by Major Scott Thomson. Credit: Science Museum

Major Scott Thomson (1909-1992), a bacteriologist, used this chest was used to carry supplies of penicillin to combat gas gangrene during the Second World War.

Penicillin sample, London, 1943 ( Science & Society Picture Library )

Penicillin sample, London, 1943 ( Science & Society Picture Library )

Scott Thomson’s career during the Second World War began as Pathologist to various military hospitals until 1943 when he was appointed by the War Office to be bacteriologist to the Penicillin Research Team. Thomson was posted to Algiers in May 1943 with surgeon Ian Fraser after under going special training at Oxford with Howard Florey.

On returning to Britain with the successful results of his trials, a decision was taken by the MRC Penicillin Committee to concentrate supplies of penicillin in one area of main battle activity in Italy. In December 1943 he was posted to Monte Cassino and according to his obituary in the Journal of Medical Microbiology he was responsible for all of the world’s supply of penicillin during those months – a fact his daughters remember him retelling.

Manufacturing penicillin, 1943 ( Science and Society Picture Library )

Manufacturing penicillin, 1943 (Science & Society Picture Library)

Like many of his contemporaries, Scott Thomson talked little about his time during the Second World War. However, I was lucky enough to meet Major Scott Thomson’s family who delighted me with the snippets of information that they had about his experiences.

Consisting of just five people, the Penicillin units were often at the back of every march, considered at the lower end of the army hierarchy. The lines between Allied and Axis forces were often so blurred that senior Axis officers wandered into the Allied camp.

Scott Thomson believed that the medical profession’s job was to cure and bacteriology was the main way of doing this and focussed his research into antibiotics. In the late 1960s, his daughters remember him talking about the overuse of antibiotic resistance – a subject which is always in the news.

By far, my favourite snippet the family were kind enough to share was the lyrics to Song for Penicillin which may have been penned by a German friend of Thomson with German, English and Italian lyrics. Although the tune is not known, but believed to be based a popular German oompah song. I’ll leave you with the chorus of the song:

German Doctor, are you willin’?

Go and try this Penicillin

This is something else than killin’ – Penicillin!

Penicillin! Penicillin!

I AM….

In Emily’s second post, find out about one of her favourite art pieces in the Science Museum

Sitting there, watching Listening Post, I was strangely mesmerised. The computer synthesised voices read out posts in different, monotonic keys, creating a calm chorus of gentle noise. I was completely hypnotised and probably could have sat there for hours… 

Listening Post at the Science Museum

Created by artists Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin, Listening Post is an art project which came to the museum in 2003. It displays small sections of live conversations from public internet chat rooms or bulletins. All the information is uncensored and picked up randomly from English sites so it could be anything. There are seven ‘scenes’ which do various displays on 200 tiny screens. Sounds from the real electronic world are also simulated like clattering of typing, the tone from an answering machine, and in some scenes, a calm, simple musical soundtrack will accompany.

My favourite scene was one where the computer voices read out single lines from a conversation, each one displayed on a new screen, eventually filling the entire display, each sentence designated to a screen on a constant loop. It was a pattern of sentences beginning with ‘I am…’ I was surprised at how much I smiled when the synthesised voice read out ‘I am happy,’ and I suppose I was touched at how someone, somewhere was happy. Along with this, there were some loops which had some rather amusing content and I was forced to hide my chuckle because the whole space was silent aside from the light clattering of changing text and the drone of the electronic voice.

Listening Post at the Science Museum ( Image Graham Peet )

The other scenes had different displays. One read out whole paragraphs of conversation, layering them and creating a harmonised symphony of undecipherable words. It was interesting to see that different ways people used networking. Meeting new people, talking to old friends. It made me feel small and insignificant, that these sections of text and words were only a miniscule fragment of what was out there on the internet at the present time. It also made me more aware that what I might be posting on the internet isn’t private and that it will remain there forever, imprinted on the walls of the World Wide Web.

Experiencing the Science Museum

This blog post was written by Emily to share her thoughts on her placement at the Science Museum

I came to the Science Museum for a two week work experience placement and was surprised at how much there was going on! Going to a museum for a school trip, or even for a day out with my family, I’m used to seeing people in the Learning department, working at the café and in the shop but being behind the scenes, I discovered there was much more then meets the eye…

Emily with Helen Sharman’s space suit ( Science Museum, London )

Walking into the building on day one, the first thing I noticed was that staff had a separate entrance with their own receptionist – there must be a lot of people working here. Then, on my quick look around the museum, half of it was looking at the galleries and exhibitions, but the other was walking around all the hidden away offices, conservation rooms and more. There was so much going on and it was all immensely interesting. Working in the Collections Office, I was opened to the opportunity to do a wide variety of tasks and experiences: Going to interesting meetings, contributing to website creations, visiting Blythe House, and doing things that actually made a difference around the museum.

Computers at Blythe House

 I’m quite a shy person. Usually, I find it very difficult to talk to people I don’t know or have never met and I become extremely passive. Working at the museum, however, with everyone being so friendly, I felt very comfortable in the work place very quickly. I was even shocked at myself at how I could so easily talk to people I had only just met and I think that being so warmly welcomed was a big contribution to that.

There were some stressful bits of work; guiding a group of people from one place to another, although a simple job, it had to be executed smoothly, and being a naturally worried person, it was quite a big thing for me to do. None the less, it was completed successfully so I was rather proud of my self. This was, after all, work experience, and it was good for me to see some of the less relaxed parts of a full time job.

Pharmacy jars at Blythe House

But, of course, this experience couldn’t be complete without a tour of Blythe House, a store for objects, and a wind down with a milkshake, IMAX film and Learning show. I enjoyed working at the museum and will undoubtedly miss my time here. But, I will leave with a fully enriching experience and I cannot thank everyone who made it such a nice time for me, enough.

 Join us soon for a second blog post by Emily on her favourite art piece at the Science Museum.



Blink and you’ll miss it

How many people do you know that have had a cataracts operation? Cataract (the clouding of the lens of the eye) have been operated on for hundreds of years. One of the earliest operations was couching – pushing the clouded lens out of the way to restore some vision. By the 1740s, methods were developed to remove the lens completely.

Diorama showing a cataract operation, Persia, AD 1000 ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

However it wasn’t until the 1940s, that a successful artificial alternative to the eye’s lens was found, the intra-ocular lens. While working with injured pilots during the Second World War, Sir Harold Ridley and others found that Perspex slivers in embedded in the eye were not rejected by the body. This held the key to finding the right material for intra-ocular lenses.

Intraocular lenses for the eye, England, 1979 ( Science Museum, London )

Working with Rayners Limited, Ridley implanted an intra-ocular lens made from using a plastic known as PMMA (polymethylmethacrylate). On 29 November 1949 the first intra ocular lens was implanted into a patient in secret at St Thomas’ Hospital London. In 1951, Ridley announced his work to his peers to some scepticism before it became widely used.Today’s intra-ocular lenses have a variety of designs with over 1500 being registered. Our tiny examples are on display in the Science and Art of Medicine gallery. If you want to find out more, try MuseumEye, the website of the British Optical Association Museum

For his services to ophathlmology Sir Harold Ridley was knighted in 2001.  and was on the Royal Mail’s Medical Breakthroughs stamp set alongside Sir Alexander Fleming, Sir John Charnley, Sir James Black (who developed beta-blockers, Sir Ronald Ross, and Sir Godfrey Hounsfield.

First Day Covers, September 2012 ( The British Postal Museum and Archive )

In 1967, Harold Ridley set up the Ridley Eye Foundation to raise funds and awareness about cataract. In 1999 the Ridley Eye Foundation had a tribute dinner to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the lens, you can see the man himself giving a talk about his discovery among the backdrop of our Flight gallery.

The man behind the motor – William Morris and the iron lung

March marks the 100th anniversary of the first cars made by William Morris (1877-1963). The first was a Morris-Oxford Light Car. William Morris began making and repairing bicycles in his work and gradually went onto to hiring and repairing cars before making his own. Although his business was disrupted by the First World War, Morris went on to dominate the British car industry and was made a baron in 1934 and 4 years later Viscount for his services to car manufacturing. He would become known as Viscount Nuffield.

Morris Minor MM, 1950 ( Science Museum, London )

You may be wondering why a medical curator is writing about car manufacturing? Well to us medical folk, Lord Nuffield is more well known for providing hospitals across the UK and what was then the British Empire with iron lungs. Over 5,000 iron lungs were donated and we are lucky enough to have one in the collection, that was donated to the Memorial Hospital in Darlington.

Both-type iron lung donated to the Memorial Hospital Darlington, c.1950s ( Science Museum, London )

During the late 1940s and 1950s, polio was cutting its way across the UK and the rest of the world. The vaccines developed by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin were still years away. Polio can and did affect people, especially children, in different ways. As an infectious disease affecting the central nervous system, some people would experience temporary or permanent paralysis of the the limbs, or of the chest muscles. For the latter, the only treatment option was an iron lung. Few hospitals were able to afford the £1000 each machine cost.

Nuffield began his mission to spread iron lungs across the world in 1938 after hearing a plea for a iron lung on the radio and offered a part of his factory to manufacture them. At the time, the Both iron lung that Nuffield begin to make was not seen as the best model on the market and he was for his “wasteful benevolence.” Nuffield went on to maufacture 700 of the Both-type iron lungs machines in his workshops. In total Nuffield donated over 5000 iron lungs. One is on display at his former home, Nuffield Place. If you look closely at our iron lung, many of the parts, look at those they were modelled on car parts.

Handle of the Both-type iron lung ( Science Museum, London )

Today, the Nuffield name lives on in the many other medical institutions and posts that William Morris endowed including Nuffield Department of Surigcal Sciences and the Nuffield College at the University of Oxford and the Nuffield Foundation. So the next time you see a Morris car, think about the man behind the motor.

‘For mica’ forever!

This blog was written by Helen Peavitt, Curator of Domestic Technology

Formica is 100 this year. Best known as the laminate associated with the 1950s and 60s colour explosion in surface coverings, what’s probably less well known is that it was originally an insulation material for the electrical industry. Formica literally stands for ‘for mica’, as it was developed as a synthetic plastic substitute for expensive mineral mica. It was made by binding layers of cloth or paper together with a phenolic resin (originally Bakelite). Engineer Dan O’Conor filed for a patent for it in February 1913 and by May the Formica Products Company (set up by O’Conor and Harold Faber) was already taking orders. 

Dark brown Formica was a success, buoyed up by its use for radio casings in the 1920s and 30s, giving the colour, feel and finish familiar to any collector of vintage radio sets. Soon it was furnishing interiors with the glossy, smooth, jet, brown and black style associated with the Deco 1930s. 


Formica swatch, 1960-1975 ( Science Museum, London )

Used wherever a tough, easy to clean surface was required, Formica was increasingly popular: found in public buildings, paneling the state rooms aboard the Cunard Queen Mary and the walls of Second World War prefab military barracks, used to toughen wooden airplane propellers and, with the growth of youth and café culture after the Second World War, on café tables and kitchen counters everywhere.

Cafe table with laminated Formica top, unsigned, British, 1955-1965 ( Science Museum, London )

Formica’s popularity was challenged in the 1970s, in part by a growing preference for ‘honest’ real-wood finishes and historic designs. By the 1980s however, new ColorCore – Formica with solid colour all the way through – became popular with influential architects, designers and jewellery makers including Wendy Ramshaw

c 1950s advertisement with a formica kitchen ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

Formica is currently in vogue. One reason for this is its ability to constantly reinvent itself, mimicking wood, stone and just about any colour and pattern. Finishes in the 2013 catalogue reflect current cultural preoccupations and colour trends. Retro-style designs include ‘Citrus halftone’ (released for Formica’s 100th anniversary ) and the enduringly popular Charcoal Boomerang, designed by Brooks Stevens as ‘Skylark’ for the optimistic 1950s and updated by industrial designer Raymond Loewy a few years later. Both indicate Formica’s ability to move with the times and, in its 100th year, celebrate its origins and heritage.

Electricity! Galvanizer and destroyer

This blog post was written by Johanna Stevens-Yule

Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta both made names for themselves with their pioneering work on electricity—however; electricity would prove to be the destructive force to the majority of their actual instruments.

Here at the Science Museum we find ourselves in the position of owning Galvani’s very own electrostatic machine, but this so very easily might not have been the case. Unlike several other pieces of Galvani’s equipment, it escaped being destroyed in an 1899 fire.


By rotating the disc on the electrostatic machine it was possible to create an electrical charge. Galvani, an Italian physician working in the eighteenth century, experimented on nerve stimulation, mainly in frogs, using this electrostatic machine. Galvani used the electrostatic machine along with other equipment to help develop his theory that electricity ran through the nerves in animals’ bodies.

During these famous experiments Galvani would typically shock nerve fibres and muscles in frogs’ legs with static electricity and observe the effects. From this Galvani concluded that electricity must flow through animals’ bodies to cause a contraction along the muscles and termed this ‘animal electricity’.

Galvani died in 1798. About a century later, the electrostatic machine, along with about 30 other items of Galvani’s experimental equipment, ended up in the hands of Professor Giuseppe Fabbi of Bologna (Galvani’s hometown). Fabbi loaned a small selection of these objects to the Esposizione Voltiana in Como (Volta’s hometown) commemorating both Galvani and Volta (but mostly Volta) for their work in electricity.

The exhibition proved to be a massive success; however, disaster struck on the 8th June 1899. In a rather ironic twist the fusing of an electric wire caused a fire to break out, burning down the entire building, taking the Galvani andVolta material with it.

A postcard displaying the exhibition in Como—or what was left it after the fire! (Image courtesy of Associazione Iubilantes)

Fortunately for us, Fabbi, a patriotic son of Bologna, decided not to loan Galvani’s most important apparatus, like the electrostatic machine, to the exhibition in Como. Instead he kept it for his own collection which he later sold on, meaning the machine is still in existence today and is now part of the Science Museum’s Galvani collection. These objects are traces of the work conducted by one of the great pioneers of electrical experimentation, and will be featured in a temporary exhibition opening in September 2013 on the history of electrical stimulation of the nerves and brain.

150 Years of the London Underground

Construction of the Metropolitan District Railway, Bayswater, London, c 1867 ( Science Museum / SSPL )

This blog post was written by Pippa Murray

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the opening of the London Underground – arguably one of London’s most iconic landmarks. Of course back in 1863, when the first tube line opened, the map looked remarkably different from the one we know today with only the metropolitan line running between Paddington and then onto Farringdon Street (a stretch measuring only six kilometers). Yet as the network of tunnels evolved throughout the late 19th century and into the 20th the construction of the underground system was considered one of the great engineering feats of modern times with the world’s only steam-driven underground railway and the first electrified underground railway. As well as having profound effects on the ability of the Londoners to move around the city quickly, cheaply and alleviating the level of congestion on London roads.




As you can see in some of these images the construction work utilised the ‘cut and cover’ technique where the pavement of the street is removed, a hole for the subway and stations is dug, and then the street is restored. 

Model of Drum digger tunnelling machine, c 1970 used to excavate the Victoria line ( © National Railway Museum / Science & Society Picture Library )


Naturally since the Metropolitan line was built technology has evolved and one of the newer lines to be built using more sophisticated tools was the Victoria line. This line took 20 years from the initial planning stages to opening in stages between 1968-1971, and was considered one of the most complex tunnel engineering of its time and. instead of the cut and cover approach, diggers like the Drum digger tunnelling machine (pictured above) were used to excavate deep down underneath some of the capitals major landmarks such as Buckingham Palace and government departments. It took approximately 2500 miners to excavate an estimated one million tons of earth and along the way a whole deluge of debris was uncovered from fossilised marine molluscs to human bones from an old plague pit.

So whilst commuters continue to moan and groan about the tube on their way to work this morning I think today of all days we all should celebrate
the London Underground and recognize it as a world class feat of engineering.

© Richard Bosomworth / SSPL


Waxing lyrical

This post was written by Emily Yates, object conservator at Blythe House

As a conservator, it is always fun to work on weird objects, even the gory ones! This beautiful, if macabre, wax model will be on shown in the exhibition Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men at  the Museum of London, running 19 October 2012 until 14 April 2013. To get her looking her best before going on show I had to remove the layers of dust and dirt that had built up over the years and make a few cosmetic repairs.

This anatomical wax model shows the internal organs, the heart is entirely removable, made by Francesco Calenzuoli (1796-1821) ( Science Museum, London )

I gently removed the dirt layers using a soft brush and a detergent solution. Once the dirt was loosened it was carefully blotted away from the surface. As there are some many crevices this was a long, careful process, but was very worthwhile as it made the coloured wax much more bright and vivid. This change in surface brightness can be seen in the images where the intricate features are much more visible. 

The lower left side of the heart has been cleaned, revealing the much brighter red of the heart ( Science Museum, London )

Wax is highly fragile, as she was made in 1818 it was inevitable that some damage had occurred over nearly 200 years. Some fragments of the wax had become detached from the edges; these formed the skin flaps representing the peeled back surface. Areas of the folded back skin running along the edge of the torso have been lost over the years, but it was possible to reattach some of these, shown in the photo.

It was possible to reattach this fragment of skin; you can also see the improved clean surface of the wax ( Science Museum, London )

The veins are made of thread with a wax coating and so are very fragile. Some of these had become dislodged or even crushed. These were also reattached in place, and any flaking wax was consolidated to prevent further damage occurring.

This picture shows damage to the fragile veins and dust build up in the crevices ( Science Museum, London )

If you would like to see the model, she will be on display from tomorrow at the Museum of London along with several other objects  including post mortem kits, dissecting aprons, a piece of brain and even tattoos, all from the Science Museum’s Blythe House store.

The greatest inventions since (manufactured) bread?

After learning about the manufacturing process of bread during a bread baking course Pippa Murray got to thinking about what other mass produced products used in our day to day lives have evolved in order to save us time…

Traditionally bread making is a lengthy process. Hours of kneading, proving and baking produce just one meagre loaf. It’s no wonder that so many of us choose to buy a loaf from the shops instead of making it ourselves! The invention of the Chorleywood bread process in 1961 transformed bread  into a product that could be manufactured on mass and distributed to stores nationwide.

This got me thinking what other inventions that have had a similar time saving affect on our lives. Below are a just a smattering of these, often overlooked, household products that can be found in the Making Modern World gallery at the Science Museum.

Microwave oven, 1968 ( Science Museum, London )

The microwave oven was invented by accident after the Second World War when a self-taught engineer named Percy Spencer was building radar equipment in a lab for Raytheon. While he had been building magnetrons,  he noticed that a chocolate bar in his pocket started to melt. He realised that microwaves can be directed at food to heat it up rapidly. The conventional microwave oven hit the market in 1967 quickly followed a succession of tantalising microwavable meals.

Sunbeam Ironmaster Model X21 electric dry iron, 1955 ( Science Museum, London )

The humble electric steam iron is not the most exciting of objects (or chores) but arguably one of the most important, popular and widely used domestic electric appliances. The electric iron was invented in 1882 by Henry W. Seeley but it was only until 1938, when the Steam-O-Matic electric steam iron was released did the object become popular, leading the way to more widespread use of the electric steam iron during the 1940s and 1950s.

This model above is one of the earlier Goblin "Teasmade", Model D.25B, 1966, first model made at Leatherhead Works ( Science Museum, London )

And my personal favourite the Teasmade, a multi faceted alarm clock come tea/coffee maker. Designed in 1902 by Albert E Richardson who decided to combine an alarm clock with a small kettle so that the user awoke to a freshly poured cup of tea. Several years later Teasmade trademarked it and developed the product seen above. A great invention but how many of us have them on our bedside tables?