Author Archives: Selina Hurley, Assistant Curator of Medicine

Burglars beware….

This blog was writter by Jared Keller, a part-time Explainer.

With so many visitors flying in from abroad, security has been a hot-button issue in the capital all summer. So much so that we here at the Science Museum thought we should offer our expertise and services to make sure everything goes off without a hitch. So we’re proud to offer this  – a 1930s “Burgot” Burglar and Fire Alarm.


Burgot Burglar and Fire Alarm, c. 1939 ( Science Museum / Science & Society )

This wonder of mechanical ingenuity combines a gramophone, rotary telephone, and closed electric circuit into one of the world’s first automated burglar/fire alarms. If tripped, this machine would mechanically dial an emergency number, and play a (quite posh) pre-recorded message alerting the authorities to the situation – a video of which can be seen here (fast forward to 7:20).

Similar devices were also widely deployed as silent alarms in banks and other high security buildings. The unit was placed in a back room and connected to a foot trigger underneath the front desk. That way a clerk could alert the authorities even while the burglars thought they had the situation under control. The illustrations imagining the scenes are courtesy of Matteo Farinella, Neuroscience PhD at UCL, and science comic extraordinaire!

 With a Burgot Alarm, bank clerks could silently signal the police and then confidently wait for help to arrive (Credit: Matteo Farinella)

A journalist for the Spokane Daily Chronicle took special joy in one particular use of the Burgot when he wrote,

“armed robbers that enter a bank and ‘cover’ the cashiers with revolvers preparatory to gathering up the money, may find that they are not as secure from attack as the submissive men in front of them would indicate”.

Though it may appear rather quaint and low-tech to our twenty-first century eyes, an article in The Age reported that similar devices accounted for 67 arrests in Yorkshire in 1955 alone!


Police answering a call from a Burgot Alarm ( Credit: Matteo Farinella )

And lest you think this wonderful device could be outsmarted by simply cutting the power to the premises, the developers of the Burgot alarm system even had the foresight to wire in each device with its own power source hidden deep within the building. As the 1938 issue of Gramophone Magazine waxed,

“even as the burglar fondly imagines he has cut all communications with the outside world, the treacherous voice of our mechanical informer is summoning swift retribution. Who would be a burglar?”

Indeed. With things like the Burgot around, who would be a burglar?!

In pursuit of power

This article was written by Ben Russell, Curator of Mechanical Engineering 

1712 was a red letter year for humankind: for the first time, rather than just relying on wind, water, or muscles, a new energy source became available: the steam engine.

Thomas Newcomen of Dartmouth took the earlier, and rather ineffective, steam pump by Thomas Savery, christened by him the ‘Miner’s Friend’, and expanded it up into a truly practical industrial machine that harnessed the power of the atmosphere. The first of Newcomen’s engines was erected near Dudley Castle in the Midlands, in 1712. Here, then, was the beginning of our mineral energy-intensive age.  

Thomas Barney’s 1719 engraving of the Newcomen engine erected near Dudley Castle ( Science Museum, London )

As the Science Museum expanded in the early twentieth century, the central role of steam meeting our energy needs placed the engine collection centre-stage: the first things visitors still see entering the museum are engines by James Watt, and other engineers.

The thing was, the museum long had a gap in its collections: there was no Newcomen-type engine to display. Curator HW Dickinson was asked to make good the deficiency. By the end of 1914, and mindful that agents for Henry Ford’s museum at Detroit were also snooping around, he had surveyed all the candidate engines.

The one chosen was that from Pentrich Colliery, Derbyshire. It was built by Francis Thompson in 1791, and used the original working cycle pioneered by Newcomen, although the engine was physically altered (and relocated) during its working life.

The Pentrich engine just before it was dismantled and shipped to the Science Museum ( Science Museum, London )

Dickinson oversaw the purchase, dismantling and re-erection of the 105 tons of iron, stone and timber comprising the engine and large portions of its engine house inside the Science Museum . It remains there today, symbolising the substitution of mineral for organic energy which Britain’s industrial revolution depended upon.


For an alternative view of the Newcomen engine why not check out the Science Museum’s Climate Changing Stories.

Coronation collecting

After the heady celebrations of the Diamond Jubilee, which memorabilia are you going to hold on to? When Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne in 1952 and was crowned the year after a whole host of memorabilia was available. We have a range of coronation day items celebrating the crowning of the current monarch as well as monarchs across Europe.


Acrylic pill box, 1953 ( Science Museum, London )

Both the mug and pill box are part of the museum’s Plastics and Modern Materials collections as examples of acrylic and urea formalyde. The pill box carries the royal coat of arms. Urea formaldehyde was first patented in the 1920s and was used for a wide range of things for electrical fittings and lampshades.   

Coronation day mug, 1953 ( Science Museum, London )

By far the quirkiest item relating to the Queen’s coronation in the collections is a decorative neon light bulb with the filament twisted in to the letters ‘E R’ for Elizabeth Regina and surmounted by a crown. The light bulb was collected in 2001 with as a commemorative piece to celebrate the Golden Jubilee 10 years ago.

Decorative light bulb 1952-1953 ( Science Museum, London )

For other coronations we have to rely on medals and prints of the time, but for King Ludwig II of Bavaria we have the magnificent meerschaum cigar holder complete with a carriage and six horses. Monarch of Bavaria until his death, Ludwig had a passion for building fairytale-like castles, but was also a significant patron of the arts.

Cigar holder representing the coronation of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Munich, Germany, 1864-1867 ( Science Museum, London )

For more on the Queen’s Jubilee why not check out the Science and Society Picture Library’s own tribute here or At Home with the Queen at the Museum of London.



Call the Midwife

Like most curators, I’m always on the look-out for interesting stories and things that capture public interest. So it won’t be much of a surprise to find I’ve been watching and reading Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth. Call the Midwife chronicles the work of the author as a midwife in the East End of London in the 1950s.

As you would expect we have a large collection of objects relating to midwifery and obstetrics. The piece of kit that caught my eye during the TV serialisation of the book is the foetal stethoscope.

Foetal stethoscope, 1870-1920 ( Science Museum, London )

Used to listen for a foetal heartbeat, this piece of equipment is a far cry from the electronic heartbeat monitoring that is sometimes used in hospitals today. Thank you to Charlotte Walker for pointing out that the Pinard stethoscope is still in use today. 

Electronic foetal monitoring system, 1980 ( Science Museum, London )

But how could midwives prepare themselves for the different birthing scenarios might arise? Obstetrical phantoms were one way and hands-on experience the other.

Obstetric phantom, Italy, 1701-1800 ( Science Museum, London )

When presented with a difficult birth, midwives dealing with home births in the 1950s often called in for the local doctor, but everything was done either through sound, touch or sight.

With the introduction of the ultrasound scanner, foetuses could be seen before birth. Originally ultrasound had been used for detecting submarines and checking for metal fatigue, before being adapted for medical use by Professor Ian Donald  in the late 1950s.

Ultrasound scanner, Scotland, 1961 ( Science Museum, London )

For women today, there is a wide variety of choices when it comes to childbirth – home delivery, water births or hospitals. There is also a choice for women as to what equipment is used. What would you collect now, to show the experience of childbirth today in 50 years time?

Curatorial collecting – new radioactive tracer machine

One of the best parts of a curator’s job is collecting new objects. It can sometimes feel like a daunting task but occasionally serendipitous circumstances lead to a great acquisition.

A member of staff from GE Healthcare was visiting the Science and Art of Medicine gallery of the 5th floor of the museum and noticed that their company had recently developed a new updated version of a piece of kit. Fortunately for us, they offered us a model for the Museum’s collections.

Model of a Technetium-99 generator by GE Healthcare

Model of a Technetium-99 generator by GE Healthcare (© GE Healthcare)

The generator produces a radioactive version of the element Technetium-99, used as a tracer in the body. Radioactive tracers are used in nuclear medicine. This is the use of radioactive isotopes to diagnose and treat illness. The radioactive element is injected, swallowed or inhaled and the progress is tracked using a gamma camera or a PET scanner. The radiation received from a tracer is comparable to that of an X-ray.

PET Scanner ( Wellcome Images )

Non-radioactive tracers have also been used to image the body. Early versions of tracers include a barium meal drink used with X-rays to show up the guts.

Barium 'Shadow Meal', 1981-595/1 (Science Museum, London)

One of the most commonly used tracers is Technetium-99. One of the problems is that Technetium-99 has a half-life of only 6 hours. So it is transported with a longer lasting isotope Molybdenum-99. Once at the hospital, the isotopes can be separated. This is done by injecting a saline or salt solution which leaves the molybdenum absorbed on the aluminium columns inside.

The designers at GE Healthcare worked in collaboration with hospital staff including radiographers to find out their needs and come up with a design solution. The model has won design awards from the Design Business Association and has also reduced its carbon footprint in the process.

New Year Honours List

Happy 2012 to everyone! The New Year Honours List has been announced and some will be starting off 2012 with new titles or new letters after their names. A number of scientists and medical researchers were honoured this year. Unsurprisingly the Science Museum’s medical collection has its fair share of sirs and dames as well as OBEs and Orders of Merit.

Artificial leg, Poland, 1940 ( Science Museum, London )

Arthur Weston made a number of artificial prostheses while imprisoned in Stalag VIIIB/344 (Lamsdorf) during the Second World War. This is just one example made from salvaged materials. Weston later became an OBE (Officer of the British Empire).

Sir James Reid's medicine chest ( Science Museum, London )

Sir James Reid (1849-1923) was personal physician to Queen Victoria. For his services he was knighted in 1895 and would also attend to the health of King Edward VII and King George V. He was also a trusted confidant and recommended that Joseph Lister become a peer.

Dr Mary Scharlieb's gown, hood, mortar board, 1888 ( Science Museum, London )

Dr Mary Scharlieb (1845-1930) was a pioneering female physician and awarded a knighthood in 1926 for her work in medicine and services to public causes. She served on the royal commission on venereal diseases from 1913 to 1916 and was one of the first female magistrates.

Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-94) was awarded the prestigious and exclusive Order of Merit in 1965 to add to her 1964 Nobel Prize for ”her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances”. The Order of Merit is a group of 24 individuals of great achievement in the fields of the arts, learning, literature and science. Hodgkin was only the second woman to be part of the exclusive group - the first was Florence Nightingale.

Molecular model of penicillin by Dorothy M Crowfoot Hodgkin, England, 1945 ( Science Museum, London )

I wonder what 2012 holds for science and medicine and just who will be honoured in 12 months time…

Numbering objects

Have you ever noticed on exhibition labels, the small, sometimes non-sensical number that follows the blurb about an object? These numbers are vital to help us find out what the object is and locate it on our database. With a collection of over 200,000 objects, on three different sites and around 95% in storage we certainly need all the help we can get.

Blythe House storage ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

When objects arrive at the museum they are  assigned a temporary number. Many different systems have been used over the years using an assortment of numbers and letters. Once all of the paperwork has been done and dusted and the object is formally acquired it gets its own unique number. An example is the best way to demonstrate.

Tomograph, 1950-1959 ( Science Museum, London )

This tomograph is 1998-15 – it was acquired in 1998 and was the 15th object that year to be acquired.

All new acquisitions are now photographed on arrival, so there is a permanent record which can be used for reference later on or for use in exhibitions or catalogues. With our digitisation projects such as Ingenious and Brought to Life we are trying to get as much of our collections photographed so we can share the brilliant stuff that is in our stores.

The whole collections database is now available online.

Before the digital age, all acquisition records were paper based. The earliest inventory number in the Science Museum’s collections is 1857-3 – a 1:4 model of James Nasmyth’s direct-action steam hammer. Information was catalogued on Form 100 cards that looked like this:

Form 100 for James Nasmyth’s model of a steam action hammer

Form 100 for James Nasmyth’s model of a steam action hammer

From time to time, objects do get de-accessioned and go through a rigorous process to ensure the objects go to good homes. Each object is debated, condition checked and when approved its transferred, sometimes to another museum. Most recently a series of tractors were transferred to Bassetlaw Museum in Nottinghamshire.

A tractor that has recently been transferred to Bassetlow Museum

A tractor that has recently been transferred to Bassetlow Museum

Thanks to Chris Jones for inspiring this post!

Caroline Matthews – a medical woman of mystery

In the Wellcome medical collections, there are lots of relics relating to famous people, some of which have featured on this blog. Many of them are from the great men of medicine and science, Joseph Lister, Louis Pasteur, as well as military and naval men, Nelson, Napoleon and Wellington.

In the Wellcome Library, only one woman’s name made the inscription in the Reading Room: Florence Nightingale.

Reading Room, Wellcome Library ( Wellcome Images )

Not so with the collections though. During one visit to the stores I came across a curious item: Khaki haversack, belonging to Dr. Caroline Matthews. Intrigued, I started searching through Wellcome Images.

Caroline Matthews ( Wellcome Images )

So just who was Dr Caroline Matthews (1878-1927)?

After graduating from Edinburgh Medical College for Women in 1903, Dr Matthews spent most of her time on the continent. We are fortunate enough to have some of her medals for her services during the Messina Earthquake in Italy, 1908 and with the Italian Red Cross.

During the Balkan War of 1912-13, she was war correspondent for the Sphere, and held the rank of surgeon in the Montenegro army and was also awarded a medal for her services.

Some of Dr Caroline Mathews' medals

Some of Dr Caroline Mathews' medals ( Science Museum / Selina Hurley )

Dr Matthews wrote Experiences of a Woman Doctor in Serbia, published by Mills and Boon in 1916, in the middle of the First World War or the ‘Great Upheaval’ as Caroline called it.

The book recounts her journeys through Serbia with the Scottish Women’s Unit, her time as a Prisoner of War and her journey back to London in 1915. Quite possibly my favourite part of the book is her account of stocking up on supplies, with her “English RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps) ‘Tabloid’ case on which to rely.”  Tabloid was the brand name of Burroughs, Wellcome & Co. Maybe she carried her supplies in the haversack, now sitting in the Science Museum stores?

Khaki haversack, belonging to Dr. Caroline Matthews

Khaki haversack, belonging to Dr. Caroline Matthews ( Science Museum / Selina Hurley )

I’ve been trying to work out why this material is in the collection. It was acquired from a private collection, just five months after her death. I feel a part 2 to this blog coming along…..

75 years of the Wellcome Trust

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the death of Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936). As part of his will, the Wellcome Trust was founded. The Trust is now the largest independent funder of medical research in the UK. 

Henry Wellcome, 1906 ( Wellcome Images )

 Henry Wellcome was a prolific collector of all things medical.

“Medicine has a history which has touched every phase of life and art and is to a large extent, bound up with records of human existence from earliest times.” – H. Wellcome

On his death there were over a million objects in his collection. Here at the Science Museum, we are privileged to look after some 100,000 objects from the Wellcome collection while the remainder were dispersed to museums on the four corners of the globe.

While it would be impossible to pick just one favourite object (mine changes on a weekly basis), I’ve done a survey of the medical curators’ office and here’s what we’ve come up with….

Amulet and charm to protect against plague, 1690-1710 ( Science Museum, London )

Not only a stunning object to look at, this amulet is covered with religious symbols and saints. Its one of the many religious items in the collection, a side to the Wellcome collection many are surprised to see. Religion and faith is just one response to epidemics of plague, alongside medical treatments and theories of disease.

Claxton ear cap, 1930s ( Science Museum, London )

Worn by babies to prevent ‘ugly ears’, the Claxton ear cap is an object just within living memory. What makes this object so appealing? It’s all about the body beautiful and how attitudes change rapidly over time.

And for something completely different, which you may remember from an earlier post. Food is an essential part of the human experience of life and death.

Ship's biscuit, 1875 ( Science Museum, London )

And finally, the thing Wellcome was famous for, his pharmaceutical company, Burroughs Wellcome & Co. These are just two of the many medicine chests Wellcome donated to explorers, politicians and celebrities of the day for advertising.

Medicine chests used on Everest expeditions, 1920s ( Science Museum, London )

To celebrate the medical curators will be giving free tours of the Science and Art of Medicine gallery on the 5th floor of the museum. Click here for more information.

Hello Dolly

Today would have been the 15th birthday of the first cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep. Named after the singer Dolly Parton, Dolly caused quite a storm when the news first broke of her birth.

In September 1997, a competition called ‘Do a Design for Dolly’ was launched by the Cystic Fibrosis Trust and supported by Portman Building Society. In March the following year, a 12-year-old girl, Holly Wharton, was announced as the winner. Her design was made from Dolly’s wool and is now on display in Making the Modern World.

Jumper made from Dolly the Sheep's wool (1998-48, Science Museum, London)

Dolly got me thinking about other sheep in the collections and a quick search found many more examples than I expected, even outside of our veterinary and agriculture collections.

Amulets for toothache, 1900s ( Science Museum, London )

For example, a sheep’s tooth used in South Devon to ward off toothache. The idea behind this amulet is to supposedly transfer the pain from person to animal tooth. And it wasn’t just sheep’s teeth that were used for this purpose.

Reaching into ancient history, sheep’s livers were used for divination by the Babylonians. This enabled healer-priests to forecast when the most opportune time for treatment would be or to aid diagnosis. The liver was considered the seat of life.

Replica of a Babylonian model of a sheep's liver ( Science Museum, London)

Sheep gut was also used for condoms. This poster comes with the tag line about the fabled 1700s Italian Giacomo Casanova by saying: ‘So if the world’s greatest lover made do with a sheep gut, surely you can use a condom’. Fair point…

'Sex hasn't changed much over the years' poster, 1988-1993 ( Science Museum, London )

Naturally, we have to give a nod to our other well-known sheep - Tracy - a transgenic ewe who was created to supply milk that would hopefully help those with cystic fibrosis. Tracy is normally on display in Making the Modern World but is currently on holiday in another exhibition.

Tracy, a transgenic sheep, 1999 ( Science Museum, London)